To the page “Social philosophy”

To the main page


Dr. Sergey Zagraevsky


About democracy and dictatorship


Almost the same – "About "democracy" and dictatorship" – was the name of Vladimir Lenin's article, written in December 1918. But we do not violate the copyright of the creator of the Soviet state, as he wrote the word "democracy" in quotes (now those quotes are not always reproduced in Internet, but one who wants to make sure that they were, can watch either the original publication in the newspaper "Pravda" ¹ 2 of January 3, 1919, or the official reprint of this article in the 37th volume of the Complete collection of the works of Lenin).

The presence of quotation marks in the title of Lenin’s article is not surprising, since he considered "pure democracy" or "democracy in general" a bourgeois institution and hoped to replace it with "dictatorship of proletariat". The latter concept he wrote without quotes, and it is also not surprisingly, as it was one of the main statements of his ideology. But we know what came out of this "dictatorship of proletariat" (no wonder that this term ceased to be officially used even in the Soviet times), so we shall write this "dictatorship" in quotes. But does the word "democracy" need quotation?

Since the writing of the article "About "democracy" and dictatorship" about a century has passed. During this time major changes occurred in the world, and we can not consider ardent Lenin’s convictions like the following: "To say about pure democracy, about democracy in general, about equality, about freedom, about allnationality, when the workers and all the working people are hungry, naked, ravaged, exhausted not only by capitalist wage slavery, but also by 4-year-old predatory war, and when the capitalists and speculators continue to hold the stolen "property" and "ready-made" apparatus of state power, – means to mock at the workers and exploited people…" as actual for the developed (as is customary to speak, civil) societies.

Social stratification, of course, now also exists in all, even the most developed countries, humanity can not live without it, and it is as far until hypothetical "communism" promised Lenin’s as until "the Kingdom Of God” promised by Jesus Christ. But if we are talking about a huge majority of the people of developed countries (according to Lenin, "the workers and of all working people"), not about unsocial elements (on the one hand, alcoholics and beggars, and on the other hand, those who commit "fraud in especially large scale"), this stratification is, fortunately, not so acute, when one is "hungry, naked, ravaged and tired of wage slavery", and some others possess "stolen property"

So let's talk about democracy and dictatorship from the view of modern civil societies. First of all we’ll agree on what we call democracy (without quotes), and what – dictatorship (also without quotes).

Formally speaking, democracy is the power of people, and dictatorship – the power of one person, or group of individuals, or even a of social layer – remember Lenin's "dictatorship of proletariat". But neither democracy nor dictatorship exist in their pure form, since even in the most democratic countries people are manipulated by certain social groups and individuals, and even in the countries with the most rigid dictatorship the people's opinion is taken into account, because while the power of the dictator is strong, it is based on the majority of the citizens, even deceived or intimidated, and mostly indifferent in our time.

The situation is also confused by the fact that since the fall of Ancient Rome where the dictatorship was an official state position in "emergency situations", none of dictators referred to himself as such. There were either absolute monarchs (in the time of Lenin there was a lot of them, but now they are almost gone, and in the modern world absolute monarchy can already be considered as one of the varieties of dictatorship), or presidents, prime ministers, "general secretaries", "leaders" and other heads of states who called their reign "republican", acted on behalf of the people and declared the things which we now would call "democratic values".

Accordingly, it was usually possible to recognize definitely the fact that there was not democracy, but dictatorship in a country, either after the fall of dictatorship or "aside" – from abroad. Most of the citizens could almost never understand that really lived not under democracy, but under dictatorship.

This situation is not to face to civil society, especially in our "information epoch". So let’s give the simple definition of democracy and dictatorship, based not on any philosophical, political or economical theory, but on the specific feelings of specific people.

Under democracy the vast majority of law-abiding citizens (according to Lenin – "the workers and of all working people", in modern world they are referred to as "taxpayers") feels that it is able to have influence on the election results and on strategy and tactics of state power, and if this power (president, government, legislature and judiciary branches, security forces, etc.) does something wrong, it can be changed in a constitutional way, within the law.

And dictatorship is when the common sense the vast majority of citizens is another: this government, i.e. the head of the state or his successors, as well as their henchmen in all state branches, is forever (if not for a thousand years as Hitler's "Reich", then for foreseeable future), and if this power acts in some incorrect way, – we’ll argue, complain, joke, at least go to a demonstration, or even take arms... But constructive thoughts about its change in a constitutional way even do not arise.

Our definitions of democracy and dictatorship allow to give everyone the opportunity to understand which of these two social and political systems prevails in his country.

We provide our readers to make themselves conclusions about the countries in which they lived and live. For example, in the times of Leonid Brezhnev a few people liked his ruling, but nobody thought about such a simple and purely legal way of its change, as a vote against Brezhnev and his henchmen at the elections (I testify it as a witness of those times). At that "dear Leonid Ilyich" was a "soft" ruler by Soviet standards, so "soft" that nobody considered him as a dictator, despite the invasion into Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and the premise of dissidents into mental hospitals. But in fact, he was a dictator by our definition, though of a very different kind than his predecessors Stalin and Khrushchev and his contemporaries Franco, Mao Zedong, Pinochet or Fidel Castro. The forms of dictatorship are no less varied than the forms of democracy.

Now we can move to the issues of comparison of effectiveness of democracy and dictatorship.

Efficiency of a socio-political system is a relative concept, and it is extremely difficult to assess its impact on modern life in the country. In the last decades the term "quality of life" is often used, and it includes "living standards" (i.e. material prosperity), health of people, life expectancy, environmental conditions, food, household and psychological comfort, social environment, cultural and religious needs satisfaction, political freedoms etc. Basing on these factors (also very relative) various international organizations expect the "indexes of quality of life".

These "indexes" of course are also very approximate since they are formed by various factors which are conditional either individually or in the aggregate. Moreover, in many countries reports and statistics are falsified. But on their basis it is possible to give a general assessment like the following: “The level of "quality of life” of an average American is much higher than that of an average Nigerian" (though the proverbial "average Nigerian" believes in the opposite: that's what I also testify as a witness, because once I had a chance to visit Nigeria).

Therefore, we are entitled, without having to go into any subtleties, to try to determine on the basis of general analysis, which of these two systems – democracy or dictatorship – affects "quality of life" positively and which – negatively. In other words, which of these systems is more efficient. We can say it even more simply: "Which one is better?".

There is a misconception, which is shared by many. It is the opinion that the state power is supposedly stronger under dictatorship than under democracy. It is often said: "The country needs order and a strong hand," and some form of dictatorship is usually meant.

In any case we will not argue that each country needs order and "strong hand". State power must be strong. But why must we consider that the "strong hand" is necessarily dictatorship?

Democracy and spineless, democracy and weakness, democracy and instability, democracy and unpredictability, democracy and the lack of order, democracy and anarchy – are not the same things. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Gustav Mannerheim, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ariel Sharon... History knows many examples of "strong hands" who governed states under stable and predictable democratic systems.

Just near one "strong hand" there must always be other "strong hands" – oppositional social movements and figures, restraining and correcting "the strongest", and competing with it. After all, "the strong hand" is not omniscient, not omnipotent and not infallible (people could think and tell so about pharaohs, popes, emperors, Stalin or Hitler, but today someone can hardly be seriously convinced in it).

But if, for example, "a strong hand" – has long been weak? What to compare it with? Only with other "strong hands", nothing else.

Therefore, the main, fundamental difference of democracy from dictatorship is not strength or weakness of the state power, but the presence of real (not declarative) public control over it. Otherwise the probability of the fact that even the most brilliant ruler, even the most professional government commit particular errors, increases substantially. And human destinies are the cost of any error of the power.

To say it even more simply: democracy is the mind of millions, dictatorship is the mind of units. And even if not one, but several persons reign in a country, even if they are united by common interests and common understanding of strategy and tactics, and even if they resolve issues in their small circle in the most democratic way, – compared to the millions of citizens they are still a notorious unit. Therefore for simplicity we will further talk about dictators in the singular, implying that in fact he can have associates and a "team".

Yes, for huge and powerful, but inert and clumsy “mind of millions" it is much more complex to take decisions than for the "mind of units." But if it turns out, then the efficiency of results increases greatly. It is much easier but far more dangerous to trust to one person commitment and uncontrolled decisions on the lives of millions.

The democratic system is often accused of manipulating the minds of the people, especially before elections. Vladimir Lenin also wrote about it in his article "About "democracy" and dictatorship": "The present "freedom of assembly and freedom of the press" in "democratic" (bourgeois-democratic) German Republic is false and hypocritical, because in fact it is freedom for the rich to buy and to bribe the press, freedom for the rich to solder people by bourgeois newspaper lies, freedom for the rich to keep their "ownership" on the best buildings, etc."… "The bourgeoisie, of course, likes to call the elections, produced under such conditions, "free", "equal", "democratic", "popular", because these words serve to conceal truth".

In this Lenin, as other critics of democracy, is right by and large. So it was, so it is, and so, unfortunately, will be in foreseeable future. But this does not mean that dictatorship is free of these global disadvantages. On the contrary – since dictators are much more interested in keeping their power than democratic rulers, they have greater success in "buying and bribing" (and also in dominating, intimidating or closing) of media, "soldering people by lies," "keeping in property" of funds and production and natural resources of the country, and everything they want, just because they are dictators.

The typical example: even in 1937-1938, at the height of Stalin's terror, though the majority of the Soviet people intuitively felt that something was going wrong and terrible in the country, but under the influence of official propaganda blamed it on "aggravation of class struggle" and "the enemies of the people". The similar situation at that time took place in Germany, and not coincidentally Hitler's chief propagandist Goebbels is often considered as "the father of modern political PR".

The world is imperfect, and any socio-political system is imperfect. But dictatorship has its "own" global, systemic weaknesses, which in a democracy (respectively, under effective public control) could have been avoided.

First of all let us note that any dictatorship is characterized by the degeneration of administrative staff. Each dictator gradually becomes surrounded by a crowd of courtiers, the vast majority of which can be summarized as follows: or thieves, or puppets, or both.

And the fight against corruption in these conditions will always be inefficient, since these courtiers have "psychology of short-timers". Say, the mood of the chief will change, we shall be dismissed without reasons, explanation and severance pay, so we must hurry to steal more!

And really, they can be dismissed in any moment and without severance pay, because dictatorship and legality are incompatible in principle. Since dictatorship as a form of government is illegal on its own, as it contradicts with many articles of the constitutions, which almost in all modern countries declare the democratic form of state power. And it never happens that there is no legitimacy at the highest levels of power, but somewhere below it suddenly appears.

And the lack of law in the country leads to lack of confidence of officials (and other citizens) in their future. And the consequences are the same: to steal as more as possible as soon as possible, while there is the chance.

Personal fairness of a dictator is not a guarantee of successful struggle against corruption and other evils of society, because he can not keep everything under control himself. Even in small Cuba, where Fidel Castro could somehow monitor everything that happened in the country, "quality of life" is very low. And it is no wonder: though Cuba is small, 11 million people live there, and it is impossible to supervise each of them...

The governance of the country under the dictatorship degenerates into "raids". The most typical one: the dictator decides to solve some problem, excoriates and punishes the guilty officials, and then switches to other things, which he has more than enough to do. What quality of control, what kind of stability can we speak about? Guilty officials are not stupid, too, and understand that there is still very long time before the next supervisory visit... By the same token, they assume quite reasonably that the dictator could just be in a bad mood that day...

Theoretically, of course, corrupted officials, non-reliable security forces and careless "working people" can be intimidated by terror, and some dictators were and are tempted to use this method as a tool for achieving of certain "order". But the problem is that even if we do not touch any moral aspects, terror is an ineffective and short-living tool.

Let’s explain. The declared purpose of terror is the freeing of the society from criminals, so the improving of safety of citizens. So to say, let’s jail or execute all the corrupted officials, killers, terrorists, crooks, spies, bunglers, deadbeats, bums, drug addicts, alcoholics and others similar, and then the honest citizens, who faithfully perform their official and off-duty responsibilities, will feel well.

This declaration sounds very impressive, but there is a problem: it is impossible to make unambiguous distinction between honest and dishonest citizens, and especially among diligent and unscrupulous attitude to one’s duties. And this leads not only to the fact that millions of innocent people are sent to prisons of to death, and the number of victims of the terror is higher than the number of victims of all criminals. There are other negative consequences of the terror.

Citizens, indeed, begin to be afraid. This fear paralyzes them, they begin to look at the power like rabbits at a boa, and there is a “vicious circle": citizens under terror increasing feel less and less safe, though safety, in fact, was the declared purpose of the terror. Accordingly, people fade away will, abilities, talents, entrepreneurial initiative, business rots disappears, productivity reduced, families are not created, the birth rate falls, national income decreases...

Then it remains for the dictator only to "militarize" his people (examples – Stalin's Soviet Union or modern North Korea). But no war can last forever: it finally destroys economy and culture. And then the dictator has to stop the terror together with the war. And new, "not frightened" generation appears on the historical scene, tries to rebuild the country and damns the dead or retired dictator…

But under the most brutal terror, during the most bloody war professional criminals (including corrupted officials), who are not so timid and helpless as honest and respectable citizens, find a way not to fall into the hands of police. Characteristically, Stalin in 1937-1938, despite millions of innocent victims of the terror, was not able to defeat real crime: numerous bands like the famous mafia gang “Black cat" (which, by the way, acted under the cover of a number of corrupted public officials) hided only temporary, but at the first opportunity, during the World war, raised their heads again.

But impossibility of victory over corruption and other crimes is not the most serious of the problems experienced by any dictatorship. It is even more serious that between people and leaders an overwhelming gap appears, and it prevents citizens of the sense of partnership with the government. And that deprives people of overall, global interest in the results of their work. Only to earn money, as more as possible! And taxes paying, environment and monuments protection, streets cleanliness observation etc. – all this is somewhere "beyond". They say that their supreme ruler is smart, let him think about all that...

In each society citizens must sacrifice some part of their wealth for a common cause. Democracy gives them desire to do this, dictatorship – doesn’t. Can a person feel involved in some higher and inexplicable things which the living god – the dictator – is doing somewhere far away?

And it is already impossible to transform modern people into dumb and obedient herd, even purposefully stultifying them be the Ancient Roman principle "Bread and circuses". So, the people begin to live their own life and to work only for themselves. And it follows inevitably that in the country dominated by dictatorship there will always be deep social stratification, low pensions, poverty, dirt, high mortality, lack of competitive production, bad roads, low education level, looting of national resources, destruction of monuments of architecture, thoughtless urban development and, of course, already mentioned crime and corruption with all range of its negative consequences. In short, the proverbial "quality of life" will steadily decline.

Global problems in foreign policy are also very closely associated with dictatorship. Partly because of unpredictability of dictatorial regimes (we have already mentioned "raids" and mood swings of the dictators), and partly due to the fact that for most developed countries, which determine global politics, democracy is something like a “sacred cow”. And if there is no democracy, then such country is not perceived as an equal partner.

And in multinational countries dictatorial regimes threaten the integrity of the state. In modern conditions, when around the world even small nations without autonomous territory claim for self-determination, a considerable part of the peoples is just doomed to separatism. And the exit of a particular territory from some country (and moreover the disintegration of the country into several independent states) always means blood, refugees, broken destinies, the gap of economic ties, many years of instability...

So, it is necessary to struggle against these separatist tendencies.

Dictatorship can effectively use primarily force methods of struggle – to send representatives to autonomies, to keep there troops, etc. (But democracy can do this, too, – we have said that it must not be confused with softness).

All other methods can be based only on the desire of a national autonomy to be a part of a state. And it is very difficult to create this desire, which can be either economic interest, or a good attitude to the central power.

Neither of these conditions are possible under dictatorship. The first – because, as we have shown above, dictatorship is always less efficient economically than democracy. The second – because the residents of national territorial entities can have no warm feeling to the infinitely distant dictator, alien for them by blood, religion and mentality.

Hope for good attitude to the central government was more or less (rather less than more) live in the time of Lenin due to the dominance of “supranational” Communist ideology in some countries, and “supranational" religions in some others. But now it is another epoch, and in the absence of an ideology and a state religion only one instrument of the state unity cementing remains for the dictator – force. And this means eternal undeclared war, because the rebellious nation can not be defeated completely, even if the methods of genocide are used (let us recall the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks or Crimean Tatars and other peoples relocation to Siberia by Stalin).

And the radical solution of these issues is possible only under the condition of development of democracy which gives each person feeling of involvement in the management of the state and the impact on the events in it.

Separatism is psychologically linked primarily with the fact that people in the province say: "I’m a respected human in my native village (city, region, national autonomy), but a null in the capital". So, if each “provincial” human has at least an illusion of the fact that in the capital he is respected as a full citizen, who is able with millions of other full citizens to influence the course of events in the country, one of the main reasons for separatism disappears.

In connection with all said above, we can draw a fundamental conclusion: democracy is always better than dictatorship. And if society is not “developed enough" for democracy – it is necessary to understand it and seek the ways for development, but not to turn the word "democracy" into some expletive, as it occurred in the article by Vladimir Lenin. If underdevelopment of a society requires absolute and unquestioned authority of a dictator (either a president or an emperor or a tribal leader), it is not an excuse, but a problem that should be solved on the way to more effective socio-political system – democracy.

– Well, okay, – I can hear. – It is difficult to argue that in our epoch dictatorship is worse than democracy, it no wonder the latter is recorded almost in all constitutions of the world, at least as some ideal. But how to move from dictatorship to democracy? It's not easy...

It is not easy, indeed. From democracy to dictatorship, if there are no the age-old democratic traditions and so effective public control, – very easy: for example, any democratically elected president during his first cadenza can put his henchmen to all key positions including the election commissions and the courts, and at the next elections regardless from the real results of the vote it will "turn out" that the majority of the people is again “pro” him and his henchmen. And then the people can become so accustomed to him that will not be able to imagine other leaders, and democracy quietly, without any violent seizure of power, will turn into dictatorship.

But on the way back – from dictatorship to democracy – there are much more difficulties. First of all, such transition is contrary to the basic instinct formulated by Friedrich Nietzsche: the desire for unlimited power over people. And for the dictator and the ruling elite it is very difficult psychologically to share power, and moreover to abandon it.

Besides this, modern dictators are usually closely related to the oligarchs, for whom the power change may mean the loss of a considerable part of income, and even the responsibility for abuses. The same applies to numerous henchmen of this dictator in government structures and bureaucratic apparatus.

In a little bit stable countries with dictatorial regimes it is no reason to expect that the masses will struggle for democracy. As we have already shown, dictatorship is usually based on the majority of citizens who believe that they live well, and are afraid to change something. Why would these people vote against the ruler, join an opposition party, participate in protest demonstrations? Everyone wants the quiet life...

And a "vicious circle" is obtained: serious people under dictatorship do not join the opposition, so there is no real opposition, and a country without real opposition is literally doomed to dictatorship. So, the modern dictators have no need to arrange a bloody terror, no need to ban opposition parties, no need to prosecute anyone for political beliefs, no need to close any newspapers and Internet sites, no need to disperse anti-government demonstrations, and at a certain stage even the falsification of the election results becomes unnecessary: if the situation is let to take its course, the opposition will quietly disappear itself.

Of course, the protest movements exist in all countries. But if they are not caused by little-understood democratic ideals, not by hunger or poverty, they can not be mass. And then it is easy to handle with them...

Is all this so hopeless?

No, because we remember that dictatorship is objectively worse than democracy. So, in historical perspective all these problems are surmountable, and every dictatorship is not eternal. The only question is when and how it will give way to democracy. Either it will cease within the life of its creator, or in the time of his weaker successors. Either it will disappear "good" – if, for example, the dictator retires or dies, having prepared democratic institutions. Or it will collapse "bad" – for example, overthrown by the people who are driven to despair by wars, unleashed by dictator, and economic difficulties, typical for any dictatorship. There are many options, and we can only hope that the laws will be observed and no blood will be shed.

Democracy will sooner or later triumph over dictatorship in any country, and there is no doubt. Less efficient social and political systems are gradually replaced by more efficient ones. This is the inexorable course of history.


Moscow, 2010–2016

Dr. S. V. Zagraevsky (c), 2010-2016


 © Sergey Zagraevsky



To the page “Social philosophy”

To the main page