The Great Falsehood of Our Time [Part I] by Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev (1827-1907)

The following is from the book “Reflections of a Russian Statesman“, translated by Robert Crozier Long.  Pobedonostsev was the ober-procurator of the Holy Synod, a jurist, and a Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical writer and political philosopher. 

That which is founded on falsehood cannot be right. Institutions founded on false principles cannot be other than false themselves.  This truth has been demonstrated by the bitter experience of ages and generations.

Among the falsest of political principles is the principle of the sovereignty of the people, the principle that all power issues from the people, and is based upon the national will–a principle which has unhappily become more firmly established since the time of the French Revolution.  Thence proceeds the theory of Parliamentarism, which, up to the present day, has deluded much of the so-called “intelligence,” and unhappily infatuated certain foolish Russians.  It continues to maintain its hold on many minds with the obstinacy of a narrow fanaticism, although every day its falsehood is exposed more clearly to the world.

In what does the theory of Parliamentarism consist?  It is supposed that the people in its assemblies makes it own laws, and elects responsible officers to execute its will.  Such is the ideal conception. It’s immediate realization is impossible.  The historical development of society necessitates that local communities increase in numbers and complexity; that separate races be assimilate, or, retaining their polities and languages, unite under a single flag, that territory extend indefinitely: under such conditions direct government by the people is impracticable.  The people must, therefore, delegate its right of power to its representatives, and invest them with administrative autonomy.  These representatives in turn cannot govern immediately, but are compelled to elect a still smaller number of trustworthy persons–ministers–to whom they entrust the preparation and execution of the laws, the apportionment and collection of taxes, the appointment of subordinate officials, and the disposition of the militant forces.

In the abstract this mechanism is quite symmetrical: for its proper operation many conditions are essential. The working of the political machine is based on impersonal forces constantly acting and completely balanced. It may act successfully only when the delegates of the people abdicate their personalities; when on the benches of Parliament sit mechanical fulfillers of the people’s behests; when the ministers of State remain impersonal, absolute executors of the will of the majority; when the elected representatives of the people are capable of understanding precisely, and executing conscientiously, the programme of activity, mathematically expressed, which has been delivered to them. Given such conditions the machine would work exactly, and would accomplish its purpose. The law would actually embody the will of the people; administrative measures would actually emanate from Parliament; the pillars of the State would rest actually on the elective assemblies, and each citizen would directly and consciously participate in the management of public affairs.

Such is the theory. Let us look at the practice. Even in the classic countries of Parliamentarism it would satisfy not one of the conditions enumerated. The elections in no way express the will of the electors. The popular representatives are in no way restricted by the opinions of their constituents, but are guided by their own views and considerations, modified by the tactics of their opponents. In reality, ministers are autocratic, and they rule, rather than are ruled by, Parliament. They attain power, and lose power, not by virtue of the will of the people, but through immense personal influence, or the influence of a strong party which places them in power, or drives them from it. They dispose of the force and resources of the nation at will, they grant immunities and favours, they maintain a multitude of idlers at the expense of the people, and they fear no censure while they enjoy the support in Parliament of a majority which they maintain by the distribution of bounties from the rich tables which the State has put at their disposal. In reality, the ministers are as irresponsible as the representatives of the people. Mistakes, abuse of power, and arbitrary acts, are of daily occurrence, yet how often do we hear of the grave responsibility of a minister? It may be once in fifty years a minister is tried for his crimes, with a result contemptible when compared with the celebrity gained by the solemn procedure.

Were we to attempt a true definition of Parliament, we should say that Parliament is an institution serving for the satisfaction of the personal ambition, vanity, and self-interest of its members. The institution of Parliament is indeed one of the greatest illustrations of human delusion. Enduring in the course of centuries the tyranny of autocratic and oligarchical governments, and ignoring that the evils of autocracy are the evils of society itself, men of intellect and knowledge have laid the responsibility for their misfortunes on their rulers and on their systems of government, and imagined that by substituting for these systems government by the will of the people, or representative government, society would be delivered from all evils and violence which it endured. What is the result?  The result is that, mutato nomine, all has remained essentially as before, and men, retaining the weakness and failings of their nature, have transfused in the new institutions their former impulses and tendencies. As before, they are ruled by personal will, and in the interests of privileged persons, but this personal will is no longer embodied in the person of the sovereign, but in the person of the leader of a party; and privilege no longer belongs to an aristocracy of birth, but to a majority ruling in Parliament and controlling the State.

On the pediment of this edifice is inscribed: “All for the Public Good.”  This is no more than a lying formula: Parliamentarism is the triumph of egoism–its highest expression. All here is calculated to the service of the ego. In the Parliamentary fiction, the representative, as such, surrenders his personality, and serves as the embodiment of the will and opinions of his constituents; in reality, the constituents in the very act of election surrender all their rights in favour of their representative. In his addresses and speeches the candidate for election lays constant emphasis upon this fiction; he reiterates his phrases about the public welfare; he is nothing but a servant of the people; he will forget himself and his interests for its sake.  But these are words, words, words alone–temporary steps of the staircase by which he climbs to the height he aspires to, and which he casts away when he needs them no longer.  Then, so far from beginning to work for society, society becomes the instrument of his aims.  To him his constituents are a herd, an aggregation of votes, and he, as their possessor, resembles those rich nomads whose flocks constitute their whole capital–the foundation of their power and eminence in society.  Thus is developed to perfection the art of playing on the instincts and passions of the mass, in order to attain the personal ends of ambition and power.  The people loses all importance for its representative, until the time arrives when it is to be played upon again; then false and flattering and lying phrases are lavished as before; some are suborned by bribery, others terrified by threats–the long chain of manoeuvres spurn which forms an invariable factor of Parliamentarism.  Yet this  electoral farce constitutes to deceive humanity, and to be regarded as an institution which crowns the edifice of State.  Poor humany!  In truth may it be said: mundus vult decipi, decipiatur. 

Thus the representative principle works in practice.  The ambitious man comes before his fellow-citizens, and strives by every means to convince them that he more than any other is worthy of their confidence.  What motives impel him to this quest?  It is hard to believe that he is impelled by disinterested zeal for the public good.

In our time, nothing is so rare as men imbued with a feeling of solidarity with the people, ready for labour and self-sacrifice for the public good; this is the ideal nature, but such natures are little inclined to come into contact with the baseness of the world.  He who, in the consciousness of duty, is capable of disinterested service of the community does not descend to the soliciting of votes, or the crying of his own praise at election meetings in loud and vulgar phrases.  Such men manifest their strength in their own work, in a small circle of congenial friends, and scorn to seek popularity in the noisy market-place.  If they approach the crowd, it is not to flatter it, or to pander to its basest instincts and tendencies, but to condemn its follies and expose its depravity.  To men of duty and honour the procedure of elections is repellent; the only men who regard it without abhorrence are selfish, egoistic natures, which wish thereby to attain their personal ends.  To acquire popularity such men have little scruple in assuming the mask of ardour for the public good.  They cannot and must not be modest, for with modesty they would not be noticed or spoken of.  By their positions, and by the parts which they have chosen, they are forced to be hypocrites and liars; they must cultivate, fraternize with, and be amiable to their opponents to gain their suffrages; they must lavish promises, knowing that they cannot fulfill them; and they must pander to the basest tendencies and prejudices of the masses to acquire majorities for themselves.  What honourable nature would accept such a role?  Describe it in a novel, the reader would be repelled, but in elections the same reader gives his vote to the living artiste in the same role.

Parliamentary elections are a matter of art, having, as the military art, their strategy and tactics.  The candidate is not brought into direct relations with his constituents.  As intermediary stands the committee, a self-constituted institution, the chief weapon of which is imprudence.  The candidate, if he is unknown, begins by assembling a number of friends and patrons.  Then all together organize a hunt among the rich and weak-minded aristocrats of the neighbourhood, whom they convince that it is their duty, their prerogative, and their privilege to stand at the head as leaders of public opinion.  There is little difficulty in finding stupid or idle people who are taken in by this trickery; and then, above their signatures, appear manifestoes in the newspapers and on the walls and pillars; which seduce the mass, eager always in the pursuit of names, titles, and wealth.  Thus are formed the committees which direct and control the elections.  They resemble in much public companies.  The composition of the committee is carefully elaborate: it contains some effective forces–energetic men who pursue at all costs material ends; while simple and frivolous idlers constitute the ballast.  The committees organize meetings, where speeches are delivered, where he who possesses a powerful voice, and can quickly and skilfully string phrases together, produces always an impression of the mass, and acquires notoriety–thus comes out the candidate for future election, who, with favouring conditions, may even supersede him whom he came to help.  Phrases, and nothing but phrases, dominate these meetings.  The crowd heads only him who cries the loudest, and who with impudence and with flattery conforms most artfully to the impulses and tendencies of the mob.

On the day of polling few give their votes intelligently: these are the individual, influential electors whom it has been worth while to convince in private.  The mast of the electors, are the practice of the herd, votes for one of the candidates nominated by the committees.  Not one exactly knows the man, or considers his character, his capacity, his convictions; all vote merely because they have heard his name so often.  It would be vain to struggle against this herd.  If a level-headed elector wished to act intelligently in such a grave affair, and not to give way to the violence of the committee, he would have to abstain altogether, or to give his vote for his candidate according to his conviction.  However he might act, he could not prevent the election of the candidate favoured by the mass of frivolous, indifference, and prejudiced electors.

In theory, the elected candidate must be the favourite of the majority; in fact, he is the favourite of a minority, sometimes very small, but representing an organized force, while the majority, like sand, has no coherence, and is therefore incapable of resisting the clique and the faction.  In theory, the election favours the intelligent and capable; in reality, it favours the pushing and impudent.  It might be thought that education, experience, conscientiousness in work, and wisdom in affairs, would be essential requirements in the candidate; in reality, whether these qualities exist or not, they are in no way needed in the struggle of the election, where the essential qualities are audacity, a combination of impudence and oratory, and even some vulgarity, which invariably acts on the masses; modesty, in union with delicacy of feeling and thought, is worth nothing.

Thus comes forth the representative of the people, thus he acquires his power.  How does he employ it, how will he turn it to advantage?  If energetic by nature he will attempt to form a party; if he is of an ordinary nature, then he joins himself to one party or another.  The leader of a party above all things requires a resolute will.  This is an organic quality, like physical strength, and does not by any means inevitably accompany moral excellence.  With limited intellect, with infinite egoism, and even wickedness, with base and dishonest tendencies, a man with a strong will may become a leader in Parliament, and may control the decisions of a party which contains men far surpassing him in moral and intellectual worth.  Such may be the character of a ruling force in Parliament.  To this should be joined another decisive force–eloquence.  This also is a natural faculty, involving neither moral character, nor high intellectual culture.  A man may be a deep thinker, a poet, a skillful general, a subtle jurist, an experienced legislator, and at the same time may not enjoy the gift of fluent speech, while, on the contrary, one with ordinary intellectual capacity and knowledge may possess a special gift of eloquence.  The union of this gift with a plenitude of intellectual power is a rare and exceptional phenomenon in Parliamentary life.  The most brilliant improvisations, which have given glory to orators, and determine grave decisions, when read are as colourless and contemptible as descriptions of scenes enacted in former times by celebrated actors and singers.  Experience shows that in great assemblies the decision does not belong to reason, but to daring and brilliancy; that the arguments most effective on the mass are not the most symmetrical–the most truly taken from the nature of things, but those expressed in sounding words and phrases, artfully selected, constantly reiterated, and calculated on the instinct of baseness always dominant in the people.  The masses are easily drawn by outbursts of empty declamation, and under such influences often form sudden decisions, which they regret on cold-blooded consideration of the affair.

Therefore, when the leader of a party combines with a strong will the gift of eloquence, he assumes his first role on an open stage before the whole world.  If he does not possess this gift he stands like a stage manager behind the scenes and directs thence all the movements of the Parliamentary spectacle, allotting the parts to others, appointing orators to speak for him, employing in his work all the rich but irresolute intellects of his party to do his thinking for him.

What is a Parliamentary party? In theory, it is an alliance of men with common convictions, joining forces for the realization of their views in legislation and administration.  But this description applies only to small parties; the large party, which alone is an effective force in Parliament, is formed under the influence only of personal ambition, and centres itself around one commanding personality.  By nature, men are divided into two classes–those who tolerate no power above them, and therefore of necessity strive to rule others; and those who by their nature dread the responsibility inseparable from independent action, and who shrink from any resolute exercise of will. These were born for submission, and together constitute a herd, which follows the men of will and resolution, who form the minority.  Thus the most talented persons submit willingly, and gladly entrust to stronger hands the control of affairs and the moral responsibility for their direction.  Instinctively they seek a leader, and become his obedient instruments, inspired by the conviction that he will lead them to victory–and, often, to spoil.  Thus all the important actions of Parliament are controlled by the leaders of the party, who inspire all decisions, who lead in combat, and profit by victory.  The public sessions are no more than a spectacle for the mass.  Speeches are delivered to sustain the fiction of Parliamentarism, but seldom a speech by itself affects the decision of Parliament in a grave affair.  Speech-making serves for the glory of the orators, for the increase of their popularity, and the making of their careers; only on rare occasions does it affect the distribution of votes.  Majorities and minorities are usually decided before the session begins.

Such is the complicated mechanism of the Parliamentary farce; such is the great political lie which dominates our age.  By the theory of Parliamentarism, the rational majority must rule; in practice, the party is ruled by five or six of its leaders who exercise all power.  In theory, decisions are controlled by clear arguments in the course of Parliamentary debates; in practice, they in no wise depend from debates, but are determined by the wills of the leaders and the promptings of personal interest.  In theory, the representatives of the people consider only the public welfare; in practice, their first consideration is their own advancement, and the interests of their friends.  In theory, they must be the best citizens; in practice, they are the most ambitious and impudent.  In theory, the elector gives his vote for his candidate because he knows him and trusts him; in practice, the elector gives his vote for a man whom he seldom knows, but who has been forced on him by the speeches of an interested party.  In theory, Parliamentary business is directed by experience, good sense, and unselfishness; in practice, the chief motive powers are a firm will, egoism, and eloquence.

Such is the Parliamentary institution, exalted as the summit and crown of the edifice of State.  It is sad to think that even in Russia there are men who aspire to the establishment of this falsehood among us; that our professors glorify to their young pupils representative government as the ideal of political science; that our newspapers pursue it in their articles and feuilletons, under the name of justice and order, without troubling to examine without prejudice the working of the parliamentary machine.  Yet even where centuries have sanctified its existence, faith already decays; the Liberal intelligence exalts it, but the people groans under its despotism, and recognizes its falsehood.  We may not see, but our children and grandchildren assuredly will see, the overthrow of this idol, which contemporary thought in its vanity continues still to worship.


One thought on “The Great Falsehood of Our Time [Part I] by Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev (1827-1907)

  • February 4, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    Thank you, Fr. Enoch!

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