Nehru's Word: Various dimensions of democracy and dictatorships

In a letter written in 1933 to his daughter, Nehru discusses the reasons for the rise of dictatorships and decline of democracy, and points out that “democracy can only flourish in an equal society”

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India

Mridula Mukherjee

Across the globe today we seem to be witnessing a rise of right-wing and authoritarian tendencies and a weakening of democratic forces. A similar trend was visible in the period following the First World War. Jawaharlal Nehru, an acute observer of the international scene, analysed this phenomenon in June 1933 in a letter he wrote to his daughter which is published in 'Glimpses of World History'. We bring to you this week the first part of this letter in which he discusses the reasons for the rise of dictatorships and decline of democracy, and points out that “democracy can only flourish in an equal society”.


“Benito Mussolini’s example of setting himself up as a dictator in Italy seemed to be a catching one in Europe…. Dictatorships arose in many countries, and parliaments were either dissolved or forcibly made to fall in with the dictator’s wishes. Among the other countries besides Italy and Spain that gave up the democratic forms of government and established dictatorships were: Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal, Hungary, and Austria….

All the countries I have mentioned above have not been continuously under open dictatorships. Sometimes their parliaments wake up for a while and are allowed to function; sometimes, as recently happened in Bulgaria, the government in power arrests any group of deputies it does not like, such as the communists, and removes them forcibly from the parliament, leaving the others to carry on as best they can. Always they live either under dictatorship or on the verge of it, and such governments of individuals or small groups, resting on force, must find support in continuing repression, murders and imprisonments of opponents, a strict censorship, and a widespread system of spies.

Dictatorships sprang up outside Europe also. I have already told you of Turkey and Kamal Pasha. In South America there were many dictators, but they are an old institution there, for the South American republics have never taken kindly to the processes of democracy.

I have not included the Soviet Union in the above list of dictatorships, because the dictatorship there, although as ruthless as any other, is of a different type. It is not the dictatorship of an individual or a small group, but of a well-organised political party basing itself especially on the workers. They call it the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Thus, we have three kinds of dictatorships — the communist type, the fascist, and the military. There is nothing peculiar about the military one; it has existed from the earliest days. The communist and fascist types are new in history, and are the special products of our own times.

The first thing that strikes one is that all these dictatorships and their variations are the direct opposite of democracy and the parliamentary form of government.

You will remember my telling you that the 19th century was the century of democracy, the century when the Rights of Man of the French Revolution governed advanced thought, and individual freedom was the aim. Out of this developed the parliamentary form of government, in varying degrees, in most countries of Europe.

In the economic field this led to the theory of laissez-faire. The 20th century, or rather the post-War years, put an end to this great tradition of the 19th century, and fewer and fewer people do reverence now to the idea of formal democracy. And with this fall of democracy the so-called liberal groups everywhere have suffered a like fate, and they have ceased to count as effective forces.

Both communism and fascism have opposed and criticised democracy, though each has done so on entirely different grounds…. Germany has recently thrown her Parliament overboard completely and is now exhibiting the worst type of fascist rule. The United States of America have always given a great deal of power to their President, and this has recently been increased.

England and France are about the only two countries at present where Parliament still functions outwardly as in the old days; their fascist activities take place in their dependencies and colonies — in India we have British fascism at work, in Indo-China, there is French fascism “pacifying” the country. But even in London and Paris, parliaments are becoming hollow shells….

Nineteenth-century democracy and parliaments are thus losing ground everywhere. In some countries they have been openly and rudely discarded, in others they have lost real significance and tend to become a bit of “solemn and empty pageantry”….

Why has this happened? Why has democracy, which was for a century or more the ideal and inspiration of countless people, and which can count its martyrs by the thousand, why has it fallen into disfavour now? Such changes do not happen without sufficient reason; they are not just due to the whims and fancies of a fickle public.

There must be something in modern conditions of life which does not fit in with the formal democracy of the 19th century. The subject is interesting and intricate. I cannot go into it here, but I shall put one or two considerations before you.

I have referred to democracy as “formal” in the preceding paragraph. The communists say that it was not real democracy; it was only a democratic shell to hide the fact that one class ruled over the other. According to them, democracy covered the dictatorship of the capitalist class. It was plutocracy, government by the wealthy.

The much-paraded vote given to the masses gave them only the choice of saying once, in four or five years, whether a certain person, X, might rule over them and exploit them or another person, Y, should do so. In either event the masses were to be exploited by the ruling class. Real democracy can only come when this class rule and exploitation end and only one class exists….

The fascist attitude is entirely different. As I have told you in my last letter, it is not easy to find out what fascist principles are, as they do not seem to possess any fixed principles. But that they are opposed to democracy there is no doubt, and their opposition is not on the communist ground that democracy is not the real article but a sham. Fascists object to the whole principle underlying the democratic idea, and they curse democracy with all the vigour at their command. Mussolini has called it a “putrefying corpse”!

The idea of individual liberty is equally disliked by the fascists, the State is everything, the individual does not count. (Communists also do not attach much value to individual liberties).… Not only communists and fascists, but many others, who have thought over the troubles of the present age, have become dissatisfied with the old idea of giving a vote and calling it a democracy.

Democracy means equality, and democracy can only flourish in an equal society. It is obvious enough that the giving of votes to everybody does not result in producing an equal society. In spite of adult suffrage and the like, there is today tremendous inequality.

Therefore, in order to give democracy a chance, an equal society must be created, and this reasoning leads them to various other ideals and methods. But all these people agree that present-day parliaments are highly unsatisfactory.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library).

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