Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Chapter IV

Democratic Equality

OUR treatment of democratic equality will be centered about the problem of the relations between equality and freedom. The political history of the working class, in the framework of modern democracy, contains a powerful statement of this problem. Referring to a general picture best exemplified by Continental Europe in the nineteenth century, it may be said that, during the phase of democratic struggle against the old aristocratic and monarchical order, liberty and equality are considered inseparable. The Third Estate identifies itself with the people at large, and the growth of a Fourth Estate is not yet rumored. The will to be free and the claim for equality seem to be but two aspects of the same enthusiasm. The doctrinal weapon of the struggle is a universalist philosophy which, through emphasis on the unity of human nature, proclaims simultaneously the equality of men and the end of arbitrary authority. When the old order is defeated, the leading section of the Third Estate makes a statement to the effect that the revolution is over. But soon a split takes place within what was the Third Estate. The Fourth Estate has arisen, with a new claim for equality -- a claim which sounds unintelligible to its former allies of the bourgeoisie.

As soon as the working class asserted its existence as a distinct sociological entity, interpreters of its consciousness, whether workers or nonworkers, strove toward a doctrinal expression of its needs and ideals. These efforts resulted in a multitude of constructions whose extreme heterogeneity makes it more remarkable that general usage, in spite of strong objections, imposes upon them a common name: this name is "socialism."

It may not be possible to work out a definition covering all theories and movements which can be described, without arbitrariness, as socialistic. Yet some features appear with striking constancy, if not with complete regularity, in these theories and movements. One such feature is a new demand for equality. True, to describe socialist doctrines as universally equalitarian would be a very crude oversimplification. One of the first and most decisively important of them, Saint-Simonism, was conceived by men possessed with a strong sense of distinction and was antiequalitarian in many respects. But the Saint-Simonists stressed equality of opportunity to the point of ruling out the right of inheritance -- a step that liberal revolutions never contemplated. As is known, Saint-Simonism was strongly influenced by Napoleonic patterns; this sort of equality appealed to workers just as it appealed to the soldiers of Napoleon.

Our time, which has experienced the worst counterattack of oligarchic exploitation in modern history, experiences also equalitarian trends of unprecedented power. Many a conservative has come to consider that all honest men have a claim on the goods that "our betters" traditionally cherished. The progress of equalitarian ideas is perhaps most significantly evidenced by the fact that equalitarian conservatism is no longer a paradoxical attitude. But the historical forces which promoted equality remain restless. The peaceful enjoyment of newly won equalitarian relations is made impossible by intense worries. This restlessness, to a considerable extent, results from doubts concerning the relation between equality and freedom. The formula which attributed basic unity of meaning to freedom and equality seems to have been lost as soon as the defeat of the old hierarchies was certain. Through feats of organization and skilful manipulation of words, governments, especially those inclined toward totalitarianism, try to stun the people and to dodge the issue. But the issue is too vital to be dodged, and confusion is entertained by the feeling that the cost of equality might be the surrender of much freedom.

The equality of men is an ideal subject for empty talk and barren controversy. In order to avoid at least the most irrelevant comments, it should be understood that the proper statement of the question cannot be: Are men equal or unequal? Let us rather consider such questions as these: In what respects are men equal and in what respects are they not equal? Among the forms of equality which it is in the power of man to promote, which ones should be promoted and which ones should not? The necessity of continual distinctions of aspects or points of view in the treatment of equality will be held axiomatic throughout this study.

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