A Clash of Civilizations or Just a Phase in Democratic Development?

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Josiah C. Russell (1900-1996) was a medieval European history Professor at the University of New Mexico. Author of 6 books and about 100 papers, he specialized in demography and medieval thought but both taught and observed modern history while living in Europe. (Ph.D. Harvard, 1926)

Elbert W. Russell is a neuropsychologist at the Miami VA Medical Center, retired. Author of 2 books and 80 professional papers including several in anthropology. (Ph.D. University of Kansas, 1968).

The catastrophic events in Iraq demonstrate the effect of political decisions that are based on a wrong reading of history. President Bush and even much of the United States accepted the concept that dictatorships are an “evil” form of government that must be eliminated. Had the present government held an alternative concept of political history the actions of the United States might have been less disastrous.

Such an alternative was held by my father, the historian J.C. Russell. We often discussed history especially modern history. At one point I tentatively suggested that dictatorships might be a natural occurrence in the historical process.  His answer was: “Isn’t that obvious.” Apparently, several years previously he had written a paper, which has not been published, describing the origin of dictators as a stage in the usual developmental process of democracies. Most modern dictators and wars are part of a general transformation of Western nations from monarchies into stable democracies.

This same historical process is now playing out in many parts of the world and is highly relevant to contemporary diplomacy. Since my father did not live to apply this theory to the contemporary international situation, a commentary based on our discussions will also be presented.

Here is his argument, in his own words:

The dictator is despised by democracies. He usually attained his position by usurpation and maintained his hold by violating civil rights. And yet nearly every modern Western nation has had a dictator in its history - Cromwell, Napoleon, Salazar, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin. Given this constant appearance, although so little liked, there must be a reason for the dictator.

A historical approach suggests that dictatorship is a natural stage in the advance from the absolute monarchy of early modern Europe to democracy. Many dictatorships appeared after World War I such as Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, Russia and Italy. None of these countries had had much experience in actual democracy. In contrast no nation with a long experience in democracy succumbed to a dictator. However, when we turn to these countries with the long record of democracy, nearly all had had a dictator. England had Cromwell and France had Napoleon.

Evidently great cultural changes occur from monarchy to democracy which create dictatorships. Most of the historical monarchs imposed great restrictions upon freedom of speech and action. This was customary and largely accepted so the subjects of such regimens felt that to raise questions outside of the permitted topics was improper if not disloyal.

Loyalty to the king was ingrained in folk feeling. Above all, a monarchial people often had considerable confidence in the king and his family with the prestige of generations of royalty behind it. The solemn ceremonies of coronation, public anniversaries and burial, place royalty before the people as the symbol of folk unity. He is human like the peasant but his acts of state approach divinity.

Even when a wretched king was replaced by revolution, the creation of a republic was a shock to a large portion of the people. The republic brought numbers of ideas which had previously been suppressed. The political horizon was unfamiliar and difficult to understand. No king was present as the single and certain source of authority to reassure the people.

The people had no republican traditions to fall back upon and the early problems of the new radicals caused many people to question the validity of the democratic process. Thus, after the first enthusiasm of the new era had passed, the people often became disappointed in the republic.

It was easy for them to flee from their new liberties. Their flight was not back to the king, however, since they still remembered his particular failings and the people had enjoyed the exhilaration of republican unity. The more confident spirits had experienced the joy of self-government as well as the freedom of speech and press.

Thus the citizen was caught between the older pattern of thought instilled into him by generations of rulers and intellectual convictions that had as yet little root in the experience of the masses. This conflict of states of mind tended to produce a restlessness in the body politic. The political atmosphere is surcharged with tension, much like the heavy atmosphere before a violent electrical storm. This feeling was true of Germany before Hitler.

A dictator was the answer to the desire to satisfy both their monarchical nostalgia and their republican aspirations. These were, of course, irreconcilable in the long run. This confusion became sublimated in devotion to the dictator. He became the symbol of a mystical union of absolutism and republicanism.

What the people seemed to wish most was a means of expressing their feelings rather than their intellect. To the more detached person the speeches of the dictators often seem unadulterated tommyrot, if not actually delirium.

The dictator offered the illusion of a fairy land. The press, the radio and the movies all present beautiful pictures of the glories of the government. The people had again a solidarity of emotion.

As part of the illusion the dictator raised all sorts of fantastic scapegoats. The French Revolutionists applied the guillotine to many varieties of enemies and eventually to their own leaders. Nazi intellect ran wild with its marvelous imagination: Nordic superiority, international Jewish conspiracy, and Slavic inferiority. The Soviets belabored international capitalism and all types of bourgeoisie activity.

 The dictator phase indicates that the process of democratization is dependent on political experience and not intellectual education. In other words democracy is based not so much upon the formal political ideas as upon a lengthy establishment of democratic attitudes and habits in the people’s folkways. Thus, it seems more important for a people to gain practical experience in self government than for them to secure a formal and theoretical education in political science.

As proposed by my father, dictatorships are part of the process in the formation of a democracy. This process produced much of the turmoil in the 20th Century.

Philip Bobbitt (2002) has proposed the concept of the “long war,” which included not only World War I and World War II but also the Cold War. The democratization theory implies that this long war with its dictatorships was primarily produced by the process of creating democracies. The First World War destroyed the last great European monarchies. This was followed by an era of dictators - at least eighteen between 1917 and 1939 (Davis, Europe, A History[1996]). For many nations the trauma of the Great War took the place of an intrinsic national revolution. World War II was derived in part from the militaristic dictator stage in Germany. The only major European dictatorship to survive was Russia.  Subsequently, the "Cold War" was a conflict between this last great western dictatorship and the democratic nations. When Russia abandoned its dictatorship The establishment of Western democracy was essentially complete.

Bobbitt argued that the long war was a conflict of ideologies, between Fascism, Communism and Parliamentarianism. However ideology does not explain the origin of World War I, nor the strong resemblances between the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, with opposed ideologies. (See Overy's Dictators and Fergson’s The World at War). Also, regardless of ideology, almost every European government that did not have a stable democracy, produced a dictator after the Great War.

This democratization process is now a world wide historical force. The Muslim countries of Turkey and Indonesia are near the democratic stage, while Saudi Arabia has a king. Most of the Muslim states, such as Iran, are in the dictatorship phase. The dictator Saddam Hussein was not derived from some evil empire of terrorists but was part of an understandable political process.

For Muslim states democratization manifests itself in increasing secularism, while religion is the major ideology. As such the most basic conflict in the Muslim world is between fundamentalism and secularism, even though some sectarian struggles are occurring.

Pape’s (2005) book Dying to Win, found that self destructive terrorism is a tactic of fighters used to drive out political and economic colonialists. Muslim fundamentalistic terrorists attack nations not due to opposed ideologies but because Western nations are perceived as attempting to recolonize Muslim countries. The President of the United States has already proclaimed that his aim is make all Middle Eastern Countries into Western democracies.

The democratization theory implies that Middle Eastern terrorism is not part of a clash of cultures or ideologies but rather an aspect of the democratization process. The real enemies for the fundamentalists of all Muslim sects are the secular more democratic elements in their own societies. Consequently, Western foreign policy should allow these pre-democratic nations to develop at their own rate without interference. The excesses of dictators, such as attacking the surrounding nations or perpetrating genocide, must be prevented by the more democratic Muslim nations. With little “Western” interference the fundamentalist terrorists will direct their terrorist tactics toward secular Muslim groups rather than Western nations.

Further reading

Bobbitt, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Davies Norman. Europe, A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ferguson, Niall. The World at War. New York: Penguin Press.

Overy, Richard. The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Pape, Robert A. Dying to win, The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005.

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    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    In this thoughtful paper I choose to dwell on one important conclusion, that:
    "The real enemies for the fundamentalists of all Muslim sects are the secular more democratic elements in their own societies."

    The statement is historically correct and is a sound guideline for future projections of political development in as much as the “secular", intentionally omitting, for now, the qualification "democratic", are the "westernizing forces,” as has been mostly the case hitherto.
    These are those elements in Arab and Moslem societies who not only derive their inspiration from Western life/culture, via a higher education at Western universities and/or local "missionary" schools, but equally base their aspirations for a better life on adopting “western” social, economical and political styles and models.

    Anti westernization, not to be necessarily construed as anti West, is an integral component of modern Arab/Moslem life not only because its latest manifestation was with direct "Western colonialism" (British, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch) and indirect "Western colonialism" (Israel and the USA) but more importantly because "Westernization" will necessarily involve the rejection and supplantation of indigenous native culture(s).

    Attempts were made by some in the past to advocate a reconciliation between both cultures to achieve a symbiotic new hybrid culture that retains the "best" elements of the two cultures i.e. science and technology from the West while retaining indigenous social modes of life.
    Practically insurmountable obstacles to this effort appeared in the all important economic and political arenas!
    The economic western model for being based on free market capitalism (with an all too visible imperialistic offshoot) and the political western model for being based on western style liberal democracy which, if applied and if applicable at all, would not only bypass “choura” but would equally fail to achieve the single minded strong/doctrinaire state leadership needed to insure complete political and economic sovereignty and territorial integrity of Arab/Moslem nation(s) newly at peril under renewed Western and Zionist attack from revived, post colonial, imperialistic ambitions of domination and hegemony.

    An ever rankling source of resentment is the implied message that Western style Democracy is necessarily superior to “choura”, the indigenous variety of power sharing; a message that not only denigrates indigenous heritage but equally fails to appreciate the compatibility of either system with the general cultural fabric of Arab/Moslem life and heritage and springs from an implied, though often explicit, sense of over all superiority.

    Re the specific point made by the authors “that dictatorship might be a natural occurrence in the historical process.” one could readily add “necessary” to “natural” in the Arab/Moslem context if dictatorship means strong leadership subject to the scrutiny of and answerability and accountability to genuine public representatives which “choura” claims to embody!

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Should you, Peter, ever desire to learn ie read carefully ever outsrip your blind hate(s) you would note that the reference was to" western style liberal democracy " in more places than one!
    As to the rest of the garbage dished out by you re "shoura" if you think that it can go only so far as to mediate "disputes over goat pastures," that would indicate the limits of your comprehension of other cultures'heritage,realities and potentials ie your own comprehension/mental limitations which is, obviously, your problem and not "shoura's"!
    Your sickly ,addictive need to "Kova-shave" seems to have overcome your ability to understand!
    I guess you, Peter K, are too unimportant to be deemed among those that harbour "the implied message that Western style Democracy is necessarily superior to “choura”," which causes the noted resentment!
    Go on doing what you do best, or worst, "Kovashaving"; it seems to be the only thing you can do!

    Peter Kovachev - 1/29/2007

    You make some very interesting points worth thinking about, Mr. Sagarra. For instance your, "the truth is democracy has always been an atypical institution seldom realized" is a case in point.

    On one hand, democracy as we interpret it is indeed a historical rarity. So, do we conclude that everyone before us was either stupid or nasty by nature? Or, could it be that the conditions for democracies are extremely rare and specific, and that perhaps democratic systems have tried to emerge again and again in the past, un-recognized and un-analyzed and never properly recorded, but were unable to take hold because they are fundamentally fragile or flawed?

    On the other hand, if we expand the definition to include "primitive" or pristine democracies, that is to say the egalitarian social systems observed in all hunter/gatherer band-level societies, then we can say that democracy is as "natural," "normal" or even "inevitable" to the human condition as anything can be, since it most likely covered 99.9% of humanity's past.

    Being an optimist, I'd like to think that technology is finally taking us "back" to the optimal conditions experienced by pristine peoples. The optimal conditions of full stomachs, low levels of conflict and relative safety and security, which ended with the rise of agriculture and appeared again in the industrial era, may be the only set of conditions which allow for what we now call liberal democracy to florish.

    It's all about Definitions and areas of focus, of course, and I should confess that I'm speculating, perhaps wildly.

    Steve Sagarra - 1/29/2007

    While some good points are made, I disagree with the statement, "the origin of dictators as a stage in the usual developmental process of democracies. Most modern dictators and wars are part of a general transformation of Western nations from monarchies into stable democracies." For the most part, most dictators formed from nationalistic needs that other forms of government, like monarchy and democracy, could not provide. Cromwell, Napolean, Hitler, and Mussolini all swept into power after their respective countries' leaders and institutions failed, leaving a void for such men to fill. Both Napolean and Hitler, forever linked in history for their Russian failures, even replaced so-called "democratic" predecessors. To say "this process produced much of the turmoil in the 20th Century" is an extreme oversimplication of 20th century events and circumstances, which expunges men like History and Stalin of their atrocities for a force seemingly beyond their control.

    The point is, these dictators were not part of a process that would lead to something else, like democracy. None of the dictators mentioned were making progress toward a democratic state, nor were they inclined too. They wanted nothing more than more power and more control. The truth is democracy has always been an atypical institution seldom realized. More often, political change in recent decades has come from casting a vote from the barrel of a gun or an explosives-laden car. Yes, "this democratization process is now a world wide historical force," but only because those who were willing to do something about it who stood up and opposed these tyrants, dictators, and yes, even terrorists.

    Peter Kovachev - 1/29/2007

    Blah-blah-blah, Omar. Let's focus on the points, which you totally miss, as is your custom. The point I argued is that the descriptive, "Western," is only incidental, a liberal democracy is a liberal democracy, point. It's merely a system of governance that transcends or can transcend all cultural boundaries. All you need is a the liberal and the secular bits, qualities attainable by all cultures ... except those who wage brutal wars against their own people and all the neighbours in the world they encounter, and we both know which those are. Actually, there is only one which has been doing this since its very inception and without a break and it's name begins with "I" and ends with an "m."

    Since you bristle over insults to your precious shuras, let me assure (*a-shure* you?) that I feel that indigenously “Western” equivalents of tribal councils based on local chiefs would be equally useless. If it makes you feel better, replace “disputes over goat pastures" with a European variation, such as “disputes over pig-pens.” The difference is that the West moved beyond such charming but useless indigenous relics, whereas the Islamic world is seriously reconsidering them. So yes, liberal democracies...not necessary Western-style ones...appear to be superior to concocted pastiches like your Islamist notions. Capisce?

    What about your "colonial" Israel? Did you find you find it's "home country" yet on your Islamically-pure Piri Reis map?

    Peter Kovachev - 1/29/2007

    Spend more time checking out a decent encyclopedia, or at least a dictionary, instead of trying to redefine the world from scratch right on your post, Omar. Time for some overdue Kova-shaving, as you call it.

    Democracy is a system, and it’s only incidentally “Western,” in that industrialization, a rising middle class and religious and cultural pluralism converged in the West because of a unique combo material causes. Democracy is hardly indigenous to the West, which also had its “shuras,” i.e., tribal councils, but moved on towards more complex and sophisticated systems like senates and parliaments. It doesn’t matter what you call a democracy. If you want to call it a “shura” to satisfy fragile Islamist chauvinism, be my guest, but hopefully it will be called such in name only, because the real thing is barely good enough to handle disputes over goat pastures, much less such infinitely more advanced systems like sewers or trash disposal. By proclaiming democracy as culturally Western, all you and yours are trying to do is to make sure that it doesn’t happen in practice. Whatever system you then concoct under whatever name and pretense, will just be more of the same dysfunctional nonsense.

    Since you can’t avoid taking a swipe at Israel … the only real and functioning democracy in your neck of the woods, btw … do you even know what colonialism means? Can you point to one feature of Israel which is “colonial”? You can’t. Israel is not an extension of any European or other distant power and doesn’t exploit the few natural resources it has or non-existent native talent for the benefit of a home country. Just over half of Israel’s citizens are of non-European origin, with not one country of origin being over-represented or having citizens formally loyal to it.

    Not that I want to trash your piece; you’ve made some remarkable improvements in shortening your paragraphs….well, in discovering paragraphs, that is.