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Harold Joseph Laski in his book Parliamentary Government in England writes:

Direct government, in short, is not the same thing as self-government; it may, indeed, as the experience of Fascist countries has shown, be the exact antithesis of it.

How did Fascist countries in 1930s (as the book was published in 1938) show that direct government is opposite of self-government? The concepts of direct government and self government are democratic ones, but Fascism was a supporter of dictatorial kind of government, the two most famous Fascists: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were dictators.

Why did Harold J. Laski choose the example of Fascist countries for explaining that concept of direct government vs self government? Is there a very evident relationship between direct government and Fascism?

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3 Answers 3

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Let's take these loose understandings of Laski's concepts:

  • Self-government: the ability of a group — a church, a trade union, an ethnic community — to establish rules for itself independent of (and free from interference by) the overarching state. The First Amendment of the US constitution (e.g.) effectively lays out certain principles of self-government for religions, the press, and associations of citizens
  • Direct government: A system whereby groups of citizens can influence or dictate the practices of the state through plebiscite or other forms of mass-public action. Several US states (e.g.) have ballot initiative systems where citizens of the state can vote directly on legislation, bypassing state legislatures.

Laski's issue is that direct government often becomes a tool used by activated groups to suppress or destroy the self-government of other groups. He points at fascism because fascists invariably leverage the power of direct government to disempower and disenfranchise everyone outside their ethnocultural group. Self-government decentralizes power in society; direct government centralizes power.

It's deeply misleading to make a claim like:

The concept(s) of direct government and self government are democratic [...], but Fascism [is dictatorial]

Fascism is a corrupt or malignant form of democracy: the perfected form of group tyranny within democratic systems. The logic of a fascist group always follows the same course:

  1. Extoll the virtues of democratic rights and liberties as the highest ideals of humanity
  2. Decry how 'other' (outsider) groups have weakened, destroyed, or stolen the democratic rights and liberties of 'our' (fascist) group
  3. Demand publicly that 'our' (fascist) group must band together to take control to restore 'our' democratic rights and liberties, weeding out those 'others' as one would weed out parasites or vermin

Fascism cannot exist outside of a democratic political system any more than cancer can exist outside of a living organism, and for much the same reason. Fascism is a disease of liberal democracy, a disease that co-opts the principles and systems of liberal democracy to destroy it from within.

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  • While these are some good points, "dictatorship of the majority" is not something that Laski brings up in that context though. His explicit beef is only with referendums. (And since he otherwise endorsed a Marxist/Communist revolution... it's not clear he would have agreed that "dictatorship of the proletariat" would have been a bad thing,.. unlike Fascism.) Apr 19, 2021 at 17:49
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    @Fizz: I didn't say "dictatorship of the majority:; I said "group tyranny". that group could be the majority; it could be a minority; it could be a group that believes it ought to be the majority. Don't read stuff into what I said. Apr 19, 2021 at 18:38
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    Looking through jstor.org/stable/41855919, Laski for instance argued (post 1930 or so) that dictatorship was justifiable or at least unavoidable in the Soviet Union, since the Western powers were trying to overthrow Communism there. (Prior to 1925 he held a much more critical view, but the suppression of the general strike in England in 1926-7 and the Great Depression pushed him to be much more willing to endorse violent means as at least unavoidable.) Apr 19, 2021 at 18:39
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    I upvoted this, but I wonder, doesn't Communism do much the same thing? I'm thinking of what happened at the start of the Soviet Union. They extol the virtues of democratic rights for the proletariat, decry the influence of capitalism and reactionary elements, then demand weeding them out. I suppose these might just be similar tactics used towards different ends.
    – Ryan_L
    Apr 19, 2021 at 20:54
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    @Ryan_L: Unbeknownst to most, Maxism is in actuality an evolute of Liberal philosophy (not something separate and opposed) so it shares some of the same basic weaknesses. But where Liberal democracy is prone to fascism (a form of ethnonationalism in which an aggrieved subgroup tries to present itself as the entire 'proper' body politic), Marxist systems are pone to totalitarian socialism (a form of statism that tries to control and structure the lives of all people that live within its territory). Both tendencies are bad, but bad for different reasons in different ways... Apr 19, 2021 at 21:45
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That pronouncement of Laski comes at the end of para/section in which he rails against referendums. Basically Laski argues that the rise of Fascism has shown that referendums ask meaningless questions and deceive the electorate, so they are fake democracy. The rest is just idiosyncratic use of terms. Before talking of Fascism, he argues that even in better circumstances the general public is incapable of really voting on the issue at hand in a referendum, and instead just passes general judgement on the government in such referenda anyway.

(Laski was also basically a Communist, and he thought that the right solution to most political issues was for workers to rise in a violent revolution.)

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Laski moved from democratic and constitutional pluralism to Marxism after the experience of the Great Depression which revealed to him the inherent inability of capitalist society to work for the common good. In no way was he a revolutionary communist calling for the violent overthrow of established governmemt.

In his foreword to Brady's book on Hitler's regime, he stated that in his view, the motive behind the the Nazi system was to extend and enforce upon the whole nation:

The rules, the behaviour patterns, and the points of view of the ordinary autocratically governed business enterprise

And

Fascism is nothing other than monopoly capitalism imposing its will on the masses whom it as deliberately transformed onto its slaves.

Moreover, the fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile in 1928 described the relationship between freedom and the state as:

Freedom can only exist within the State, and the State means authority. But the State is not some entity hovering in the air above the heads of its citizens. It is one with the personality of the citizen.

And:

the need of the Party, and all the instruments of propaganda and education with which Fascism seeks to make the thought and will of the Duce the thought and will of the masses.

Moreover:

the need of the Party, and all the instruments of propaganda and education with which Fascism seeks to make the thought and will of the Duce the thought and will of the masses.

It's most likely this notion of control of the population he is referring to through the instruments of propaganda including those of what looks like direct democracy but actually disguises the control of the fascist hierarchy.

It's worth recalling here that Hitler and the Nazi party took power by democratic means.

Laski is not discussing here the classic notion of direct democracy practised in the ancient greek city-state given that European states are of such a size that makes direct democracy a practical impossibility but how democracy itself can be suborned into a fascistic policy whilst all the time fascist propaganda is saying it is making a more 'direct' and purer democracy possible.

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  • The Nazi party did not take power by democratic means. When the Nazis increased in popularity the legitimacy for the government had already moved from public mandate to emergency decrees of the president. i.e. a government is appointed, gets a vote of no confidence from parliament and stays in office till the next election and even with the abuse of executive powers to meddle in the next election Hitler still only scored a plurality and went on to seize power by banning and coercing the other parties to pass an emergency decree to make himself a de facto dictator. Democracy was already dead
    – haxor789
    Feb 6, 2023 at 10:46

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