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Dangers of democracy.

An unusually frank article by a leading figure in the Soviet Union about the political obstacles to perestroika appeared during the summer in The New York Review of Books (August 16, 1990). The article reflects an ongoing search for a firm class basis on which the newly emerging rulers can rely to support the social transformation now under way. It also reveals a line of thinking that leads to a politics of repression, calling for a governmental structure capable of restraining strikes and preventing popular struggles from getting out of hand. The author is Gavril Popov, the recently elected mayor of Moscow and editor of the journal Issues of economics. The article's title is the same as the one above, except that Popov's title has no question mark after it. According to Popov, too much democracy seriously threatens the reconstruction being attempted in Eastern Europe:

In my opinion, the forms of democracy being established in [Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union] are exceptionally contradictory and in a very short time they will lead to serious internal conflict. That conflict has already started in Poland. It can be observed in Romania, and it is beginning in our country, too. What is happening apparently does not depend on the national characteristics of the particular countries involved, but on more fundamental processes.

I see the main problem in the relationship between, on the one hand, populism and, on the other, the tasks that must be carried out if the economy and the society are to be transformed. Clearly, we could not have overthrown the powerful totalitarian system without the active participation of millions of ordinary people. But now we must create a society with a variety of different forms of ownership, including private property- and this will be a society of economic inequality. There will be contradictions between the policies leading to denationalization, privatization, and inequality on the one hand and, on the other, the populist character of- the forces that were set in motion in order to achieve these aims. The masses long for fairness and economic equality. And the further the process of transformation goes, the more acute and the more glaring will be the gap between those aspirations and economic realities.

The dilemma Popov describes is not unknown to history. To succeed revolutions need the enthusiastic support, participation, and often great sacrifice of the masses. Although those who join to make revolution have a common aim in overthrowing the existing order, the participating social groups may have quite different ideas about the nature of the postrevolutionary society to be established. Indeed, the expectations of sectors of the temporary revolutionary alliance may be antagonistic, not just different. The new rulers then have to find ways to assure their supremacy and keep other classes from disrupting the new elite's agenda.

This is precisely the problem that disturbs Popov. Not surprisingly, one can detect in his plight an echo of developments in this country during the years following the American Revolution. There were then many clashes between regional and social interest groups over the uses to which the newly won independence was to be put. The Articles of Confederation-the first constitution of the new republic-left room for populist pressures that interfered with and even threatened the type of society envisioned and desired by the revolutionary leadership. The growing dissension and clash of interest groups led to the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation and the adoption of the present Constitution of the United States of America. It is clear from The Federalist Papers (essays by Alexander Hamilton, james Madison, and john jay written to persuade voters to ratify the new constitution) that the dangers of too much democracy were ever present in the minds of those who crafted and fought for the adoption of a constitution calculated to provide a safer structure for the protection and preservation of private property.

Despite certain similarities, however, there is a striking difference between what took place during the early days of our republic and what Popov and other leaders of the Soviet Union are concerned about today. The issue the founding fathers faced was how to protect and preserve an existing inequality. The issue facing the leaders of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is to design a structure which will protect and support the creation of inequality.

The issue of inequality was very much alive in the days before and after the American Revolution. It should be recalled that at the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century there was an outburst of religious radicalism in England. The Levelers, the Diggers, and other dissenting groups challenged not only religious orthodoxy but almost every accepted tenet of the established order as well. Very advanced ideas of egailtarianism were spread widely among the British people. Many of the early English immigrants to America brought their religious heresies and radical egalitarian ideas along with the rest of their baggage. Egalitarian ideas rose from other sources as well. They arose in struggle by the "lower orders" against the powerful few who grabbed vast tracts of frontier land for themselves, notably the armed revolt of the Regulators in North Carolina. The 1760s also saw the rapid spread among the less prosperous sectors in the South of an evangelical religious movement (referred to as the Great Awakening) that challenged the power and life style of the wealthy planters.

Thus, the search for liberty and for major political and economic change took various forms in colonial days-in the realm of egailtarian ideas and during many years of militant, at times armed, struggle against the rich and powerful. For many the revolution for independence brought new hope for radical changes: there were farmers, apprentices, laborers, landless farm workers, and slaves in the revolutionary army who believed they were fighting for much more than the removal of a foreign yoke:

For many Americans in the middle 1770s independence from the British was all the American Revolution meant. For many others, however, the Revolution involved that and more, the repudiation in an independent America of traditional colonial forms of government and, most significantly, the repudiation of the traditional elites who had dominated political and social life in colonial America. It was this latter perspective, a leveling and more democratic ideal, which tended to dominate after 1776, during the period of America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. After 1776 there would indeed be new men, quite humble men in many cases, who came to rule in America. It was to a great extent the power of these new men and the leveling policies they pursued in their base of strength-the state legislatures-which, along with the sense of anarchic crisis in the state-centered Articles of Confederation, prompted the drafting of the Constitution.... In shifting power from the states, where new men dominated, to a new central government, the Constitution would reverse the verdict of 1776 on who would rule in America. (Isaac Kramnick, "Editor's Introduction" in james Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 15)

Historians still debate whether there was an anarchic" crisis, but crisis there surely was. The Revolutionary War had been largely financed by the printing press. Congress and the separate states issued large quantities of paper money which, together with the effect of the British blockade on the availabillty of goods, led to severe inflation and hard times during the war years. After the war, the ports opened up and business with Britain returned to normal, bringing with it at first an oversupply of goods and then a depression.

The strains of war and depression produced a large class of debtors which grew by leaps and bounds during and after the war. Those unable to meet their debt obligations ended up losing whatever property (home, farm, tools) they had; and if that was still not enough to settle their outstanding obligations, they landed and languished in debtors' prison.

Legislators who cared more for the interests of people than the rights of property enacted debt relief and other measures to ease the burdens of difficult times. In doing so, they clearly threatened the traditional and sacred rights of property. Vested interests responded with accusations of "open and outrageous .. violations of every principle of justice," and lobbied vigorously for constitutional reforms that would protect their interests.

The Massachusetts legislature was an outstanding exception to the radical trend. It showed proper respect for sound finance. As a result, Massachusetts farmers who lacked the cash in the midst of a depression to settle their debts faced the loss of their farms and the source of their livelihood. They responded to the dictates of legislature and courts with rebellion. Led by a former army captain, Daniel Shays, hard pressed debtors tried to prevent the courts from sitting. Unsuccessful and declared outlaws, they sought to capture a federal arsenal. The revolt was finally suppressed. Although this was the only open revolt at the time, there was plenty of combustible unrest in every state. The conveners of the constitutional convention interpreted Shays's rebellion and the signs of potential revolt elsewhere as forces leading to the repudiation of' public and private debt and a new division of property. Democracy had become dangerous:

What was happening in America in 1786 and 1787 was transferral of its innate suspicion and fear of political power, which in the previous decade had been directed at the British crown and its ministers, now to its own state legislatures. It was, after all, taken as an iron law of politics that no one was exempt from the corrupting influence of power. The British had been excessive in the exercise of' government and authority; now the people were excessive in the exercise of liberty. The "politics of liberty" had led to injustice, wickedness and anarchy. (Kramnick, p. 27, emphasis added)

Alexander Hamilton, like Gavriil Popov today, warned about excessive zeal in the exercise of liberty:

The circumstances of a revolution quickened the public sensibility on every point connected with the security of popular rights, and in some instances raised the warmth of' our zeal beyond the degree which consisted with the due temperature of the body politic. Federalist No. 26)

Hamilton's phraseology is that of the eighteenth century, but his meaning is clear when viewed in the context of his other writings. He favored establishing an environment suitable to the development of capitalist commerce and industry. Liberty is fine and good, so long as it doesn't interfere with the rules needed by a business society. james Madison, the great political theoretician and perhaps the most influential draftsman of the Constitution, was crystal clear in describing the dangers of too much democracy: [M]easures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." Later in the same document he gives examples of the "wicked and improper" projects that may pervade an overbearing majority: [A] rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property."' Federalist No. 10) The divisions of interest in society, according to Madison, had primarily to do with property. The responsibility of government was to manage the conflicts of interest among the diverse sectors of society, but all within the framework of the preservation of inequality:

The most common and durable source of factions [within society] has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them in different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government. Federalist No. 10)

It is fascinating to see the reverberations of this theme in Popov's analysis. He not only seeks a firm basis for inequality but finds the key in the establishment and development of private property. There is a close interrelation between three elements in this proposed reversal of the earlier Soviet program: unashamed inequality, extensive private property, and a protective political system. And he puts his cards on the table as frankly as did the framers of the U.S. constitution:

The model of complete democracy we have been trying to follow is bound, in my view, to encounter serious difficulties: first through strikes and then through the consequences of yielding to the demands of left-wing populism, starting at the lower levels of the soviets, and then going higher and higher....

The participants in the political struggle in our [Eastern European] countries today lack the element that is most needed for them to shape a workable society: new forms of property. And in order for new forms of property and new political forces that would reflect them to appear, we need time. But that is precisely what we do not have. If we cannot soon denationalize privatize property, we will be attacked by waves of workers fighting for their own interests.... The first conclusion from the analysis I have been making is that we must speed up changes in the forms of ownership. The second is that we must seek new mechanisms and institutions of political power that will depend less on populism.

Despite the many similarities between this article by Popov and a major theme of The Federalist Papers, there is an overriding and ironic difference. The founding fathers were spokesmen for existing ruling classes. Gavriil Popov is a spokesman for classes based on a property system that does not yet exit. A though the goals clear, the road to its achievement is not marked on any of history's available maps.
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Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:editorial
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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