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Theodor Heuss, "Democracy and Parliamentarism: Their History, Their Enemies, and Their Future" (1928)

The interwar years saw a number of dictatorships emerge throughout Europe; the international community took great interest in developments in Italy, where a fascist government took power in October 1922, and in communist Russia (renamed the Soviet Union in December 1922). In this essay, which appears in excerpted form, the liberal politician Theodor Heuss discusses the dangerous attraction of radical ideologies on the right and the left, and he defends democracy and parliamentarism. Additionally, he criticizes estate-based ideology as an unrealistic simplification of complex modern society. According to him, a social order based on professional groups runs the risk of turning the state into a “battlefield of vested interests.” Fascism and Bolshevism, according to Heuss, have common intellectual roots in both anarchy (hence the reference to Mikhail Bakunin) and French syndicalism. He argues that anti-democratic ideologies do not have the capacity to “produce a clear concept of a legitimate state.” For Heuss, the concept of the nation-state grew out of democracy.

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Democracy and parliamentarism do not represent prophecies of salvation, nor do they provide an absolute prescription against the ailments of this world. They are historical forms of state deliberation, conditioned historically essentially through the pedagogical force of the self-imposed responsibility that is specific to them. They have had to accept attacks on their theoretical and historical position. The standpoint of the attack varies. Peculiar to most fundamental discussions is that they determine democracy to be a child of “Western rationalism” whose time is past. They confront it, a time-bound intellectual form, with the claims of an absolute valuation, in the process overlooking the circumstance that every extension of their theoretical antitheses into concrete demands brings them into the realm of corporate ideologies of fascist or some other salvational form, which, in turn, leads into a labyrinth of a typically irrationalist stamp.

In this connection, Germany has become infatuated with a couple of catchwords. Democracy “atomizes” the people by turning the individual, as a fundamental elector cut off from any social estate and heritage, into a political factor. This homo politicus, pronounced sovereign on voting days, is regarded as a fiction; a person is not a citizen per se, but a member of a society of manifold stratifications, which is now being leveled by force of doctrine. And so on. Weimar, so goes the claim, merely copied foreign models; the fragmentation of the German spirit was already so severe that no reference was made to the basic constituents of corporate estates and legal forms as they existed in German history. For a time much mischief was made with this incantation of the particular character of the German state. Estate stratification–it is necessary here to repeat a frequently rehearsed chain of thought–was never, as romantic legend would have it, specific to the German essence, but was rather an aspect of an historical epoch; it was not “leveled” by the rationalism of the democratic idea, but broken down by the absolutist territorial state equipped with a bureaucracy. Nor does the attempt to revitalize it theoretically and transpose it into the essence of a new “corporate estate system” derive from the labor of a specifically German spirit—its first classical representative was the Genevan [Jean Charles] Sismondi, who is considered part of the French world. One will recall that this idea acquired political significance when, in a strange to and fro of motives, it served to strip the council idea of political offshoots: at the time a corporatist ideology had been grafted onto it in political economic form. The gardeners and botanists are still not entirely sure whether the tree will bear nourishing fruit in the hothouse of the national economic council. But here we may let it rest at that.

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