The Universal Aspects of the State

Updated: Jul 9


Barnes, James Strachey. In The Universal Aspects of Fascism, 65–90. London: Williams, Norgate, 1928.


1. Whenever a ruling authority, not humanly subject to any higher ruling authority, exists over a given society of human families, that society constitutes a State, however barbarous, however primitive it may be. Here we have an accurate definition of the State in accordance with the broader meaning of the term. It is a society juridically organised, “a political unity, whose raison d'être is the promotion of the general good.”


The State, accordingly, is not simply a national unity, nor a racial unity, nor a religious or moral unity, nor yet an intellectual or emotional unity. A given State may coincide with these unities; it may, in the course of historical development, arise from one or more of these unities, either alone or combined; it may, and almost certainly will, tend to establish these unities. But these unities do not in fact constitute the State, because they can exist independently of the State. The essence of the State is political unity—juridical unity; and it is a “perfect” society in that it admits no superior authority to itself save alone the Moral Law, which is the Law of God. Nevertheless, as I stated in the previous chapter, an indication of political progress is the growth and integration of national States, that is, the assimilation by a given State of the various national groups or peoples of which it may be composed, into one single Nation under the authority of its juridical institutions, which are an aspect of itself; and the extension of the State, wherever extension leads to assimilation of the parts to which its authority is extended. National unity, therefore, is indeed a measure of political progress. But the State may well be independent of national unity; and its independence of national unity may be justified, “provided it be of a nature to insure the general welfare,” and demonstrates its vitality by its cohesion and by its power of assimilation. The power of assimilation is, in fact, the general justification of Empire, of which more will be said in due course.


“The political unity which is the State, arises from the cooperation of two causes, of which one is the very nature of things, the other the conscious human will—so that one may rightly say of the State that it is, taken as a whole, both a natural and voluntary society.”


The establishment of States is not due to men’s caprice. Historically speaking, the establishment of States has not followed upon an era of anarchy. Their establishment is a product of nature, the consequence of man being by nature a social animal, in that no society of families can hold together without a supreme ruling authority, the presence of which makes of that society a State and man a political animal. In other words, States have not arisen and do not arise by the mere conscious willing of human beings; but having arisen or arising, men’s will consciously acquiesce in their establishment, in that their establishment fulfils purposes inherent in human nature, and seeks more or less successfully to perfect them. For the whole human race, by the Grace of God, is born members one of another; and the natural tendency of mankind to form States, to acquiesce consciously in their formation and to perfect them, is a reflection of this fact. It is only due to fallen human nature, in other words to original sin, that the whole of humanity has failed to grow up or crystallise into a single State. The universal State, however, is the goal of political progress, an aspiration which, owing to man’s very nature, it is impossible to cancel from his heart. But such progress, in so far as it may be promoted by man’s conscious will, even if we discount actual selfish ambitions, is hindered by the very diversity of existing States, in size, degree of civilisation and culture; by distrust of one another; by the fear of oppression; above all, by disagreement over what constitutes moral worth; for no State will willingly allow itself to become merged in another higher authority, if it experiences even the smallest suspicion that thereby a code of Moral Law, other than that which itself holds to be true, would become ascendant, and so corrupt in its eyes the ends for which the State is constituted. It is too often forgotten that many wars are waged in perfect good faith, whether in fact justified or not, owing to the fear of succumbing to a power thought to be morally inferior.


So the State is a political unity, the juridical institutions of which are an aspect of itself. Thus, too, the notion of a State and of authority go together; for the exercise of a supreme ruling authority is the function of the State. The State, moreover, is an organism (as indeed are all human societies, but more specifically the State as being the most perfect and formal of human societies), albeit an organism sui generis, a fact which Sociology demonstrates, in that the State may be observed to be a living unity, subject to growth and decay, like any other living organism. Hence it is not the mere sum of its parts, but the resultant thereof, with an autonomy of its own, having as the object of its existence the general good.


As Herbert Spencer has pointed out: “The State undergoes, like every living organism, a continuous growth. As it grows, its parts become unlike; it exhibits increase of structure. The unlike parts simultaneously assume activities of unlike kinds. These activities are not simply different, but their differences are so related as to make one another possible. The reciprocal aid thus given causes mutual dependence of the parts, and the mutually dependent parts, living by and for one another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as is an individual organism. . . . The analogy of a society (State) to an organism becomes clearer on learning that every organism of appreciable size is a society; and on further learning that, in both, the lives of the units continue for some time if the life of the aggregate becomes suddenly arrested, while, if the aggregate is not destroyed by violence, its life greatly exceeds the life of its units.”


The natural tendency of all organisms is to fight for their continued existence; and Sociology demonstrates that States exhibit this natural tendency as powerfully and instinctively as any other living organism. This is a natural law, which the Moral law transcends, but does not lay aside. The Moral Law can never be in essential conflict with Natural Law. So here we have a law of life; and the manner in which the Moral Law transcends it is by sanctioning the sacrifice of individual life whenever thereby a richer, more vigorous life and a generally higher (more moral) life is rightly judged to be the consequence. Thus the justification of the State’s right to promote a spirit of self-sacrifice among its members for the common good, or to call upon its members to risk, or even lay down, their lives in order to insure its survival, depends on the fact of the fulfilment by the State of the purposes for which it is divinely constituted, the promotion of the general well-being, that is, a higher, richer and more vigorous life for the aggregate that succeeds the generation of which the sacrifices are demanded. The same principle may be held likewise to justify many coercive laws, provided such laws do not in any way infringe on an individual’s “natural” rights, arising out of the conditions in which and the purposes for which the individual, endowed with a soul and a rational mind, has been created.


But Government is an art exercised by human beings, who are apt to fail, even with the best intentions, in their judgement of right and wrong means. Laws may, in fact, be unjust or defeat their own purpose, however well intended. When we leave general principles and enter the realm of the contingent, we are often beset by insurmountable difficulties. Practically we seem often to be placed in the dilemma of a choice between two evils, so that, as I have said, the path to Heaven of the practical statesman is only too often paved by good intentions. There is, of course, the Science of Casuistry, a specialised branch of Moral Philosophy, to guide practical men along the right path. And if, for no adequate reason, this Science has earned a somewhat evil reputation, this is but the homage which it pays to the difficulties which are to be met with in the realm of the contingent. Much of it necessarily constitutes debatable ground; but the world owes a debt of infinite gratitude to the great Jesuit thinkers, to whom more than anyone else, is due the elaboration of this Science. Those who pretend to scoff at it are generally those who have never taken the trouble to enquire into the subject or are so proud as to imagine that their own uninstructed reason, instinct or experience are an invariably infallible guide. I assure these folk that private judgement on moral questions is the death of all morality. If this were not so, there would be good cause to allow criminals to act as judges in their own cases.


2. Authority is essential to any form of society, whether it be domestic or civil, barbarous or civilised, legitimate or illegitimate, free or necessary. Authority will invariably be present in some form or society will cease to be.


The definition of authority and proof of the above statement are given very forcibly by Albert Valensin, as follows:


Les hommes ne sauraient vivre normalement isolés les uns des autres. Il est dans leur nature de vivre en société, c’est-à-dire en unissant leurs activités en vue d’une fin commune. Mais pour tendre efficacement à cette fin commune, ils ont essentiellement besoin de recevoir l’impulsion d’un principe d’unité qui ne soit pas seulement extérieur, mais intérieur, touchant à leur volonté même et la liant par le seul lien qui convienne à des êtres intelligents, et par conséquent libres : je veux dire, par le lien moral de l’obligation.


“Or, ce principe, cette faculté, ce pouvoir d’obliger est précisément ce qu’on entend par autorité.”

So authority consists in the right of Government. It is a moral power, a reasonable, unifying and beneficent principle, to which respect is due on the one hand, which requires a consciousness of responsibility in those who exercise it on the other. Most of all is this true respecting the State, the supreme ruling authority in a civil society. So the State does not originally arise, as some would pretend, as a consequence of the presence of a national instinct. I do not mean by this that, in the course of historical development, a State may not be formed out of elements having a clearly-defined national consciousness, following the dissolution or partial dissolution of another State or States. This, of course, happens frequently, though by no means invariably. More often than not within the State, established originally with complete disregard of national consciousness, a sense of nationality among those composing the State is brought gradually into being, especially if the State shows itself to be a strong and vital organism and fulfils adequately the purposes for which it is constituted. The inability on the part of a State to assimilate the national groups or peoples of which it may originally be composed into a single Nation is due, in most cases, to a combination of weakness and bad, unreasonable, unsympathetic Government, leading to disintegration from within by the rebellion of the disaffected or to disintegration from without as a consequence of defeat in war.


The theory that the presence of a national instinct gave rise originally to States is flatly contrary to the facts, which anyone with historical knowledge will readily admit. It is putting the cart before the horse. On the other hand, there may be good enough reasons, without having to fall back upon this theory, why, in particular cases, a particular imperial system should be combated, or why the aspirations of a people, strongly united by a common national sentiment, should be encouraged to break away, by every legitimate means, from the dominion of an imperial State and form a State of their own, either alone or in conjunction with another outside group sharing with them the same or similar national consciousness. If the imperial State in question be flagrantly misgoverning its members, or some of them; if it be exhibiting an obvious incapacity for assimilation; if its weakness be such that there is constituted a continual menace to its safety or cohesion, the creation of new States by a regrouping of the members of the imperial State along the lines dictated by national sentiment, or in accordance with some other principle of unity, may be legitimately advocated as a measure to insure better Government, more stable political conditions, greater or swifter political progress, or peace. There is nothing, however, inherently wrong, unstable or aggressive in an imperial system. On the contrary, a sound imperial system, like the Roman, for one, requires no apology. An imperial system is in countless cases the prelude to greater unity, to the creation of a wider national consciousness, to the establishment of peaceful conditions over a wider area, to greater well-being through the lessening of restrictions on trading, and to the maintenance of peace in the world at large. Who can deny that the British Empire is not eminently fulfilling these functions? Again, the splitting up of Central and South-Eastern Europe, as a consequence of the Great War, into a large number of national States, though, maybe, a necessary and even salutary process of historical development (given the facts of Turkish misrule and decadent conditions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), is by no means an unmixed blessing to the peoples concerned. So we may rightly conclude that, to argue from the particular case, which may be justified, to the general case as a principle to be universally applied, is a complete and dangerous non sequitur.


Another false theory in juxtaposition to ours is that States arose in the first instance through some actual or tacit social contract entered into between the individual members of a society. This theory is no less false historically. It was popularised, if not invented, by Rousseau for the purpose of providing some historical and reasonable foundation in support of the contention that Democracy and the “Sovereignty of the People” were matters of universal validity. In a later chapter I shall have occasion to discuss in some detail these two principles. Here I am only concerned with exposing the falsity of the theory which purports to make these principles necessarily acceptable, because inherent in the origin of States and of authority—though to punish a corpse, in all conscience, is a sad waste of breath; for no serious student of politics entertains the theory of the Social Contract any longer for an instant. But in that there are many people (and among these some serious students of politics), who believe passionately in the ideal of Democracy; and since Rousseau’s theory had so much to do with the promotion of this ideal during the last century, that it survives still among the uninstructed, we may as well recapitulate a few of the main reasons that expose its futility.


A.—The existence of a contract, either actual or tacit, originating the State, especially among primitive peoples, is not confirmed by history. On the contray, all the historical evidence points the other way.


B.—The notion that man is “born free,” by which Rousseau evidently means “independent,” is contrary to experience. Man is born a member of a family, and is subjected in infancy to the authority of his parents. Moreover, if it has become the custom for grown men and women nowadays to emancipate themselves from all parental authority, this was not so in earlier times, especially among primitive peoples, where the authority of the head of the family usually remained in force until death terminated it. It is true that, in a sense, as we have seen, man is “born free” by virtue of his reason, with which he is endowed. If this were all that Rousseau meant by his hypothesis of a pact, namely, that in all forms of society man’s reason leads him to acquiesce in some form of authority, I should have no objection to make; but Rousseau must mean more than this, or why elaborate an historically untrue hypothesis in order to justify something which could be stated much more simply without it? The truth is that he is searching at all costs for some argument that would necessarily bind man to be the slave of the “general will,” that is, to an instinctive force rather than a rational one. Consequently Rousseau’s freedom has no rational significance; he would say in effect: “I am free to do whatever I will, even to the extent of renouncing my freedom, or of selling my own soul.” Such freedom, however, is the very negation of freedom. It is licence.


C.—The notion of a “state of nature,” where man was happy in his complete independence, existing anterior to the formation of the State, is an entirely arbitrary presupposition. It is not merely contrary to the teachings of the Church, but contrary to the conclusions of ethnography. (N.B.—A “state of innocence” is not the same thing as a “state of nature.”) Even Voltaire, who shared some of Rousseau’s conclusions, considered this notion of his as a piece of prodigious nonsense, as indeed it is. “Nonsocial man would be a miserable, naked, helpless biped, exposed to the rapacity of beasts and to the elements.”


D.—Rousseau declares the necessity of a pact in order to account for the State and in order to legitimise authority. In other words, he commits himself to the following untenable position: Assuming that a given State came into existence following a pact, unless the pact be renewed every twenty years, as Sieyès logically suggested, that State cannot continue de jure, but only de facto. For why should a pact, even supposing it were once made and brought a State originally into existence, bind indefinitely future generations of men “born free,” that is, born essentially independent? And what of children and women and of all those men who happen to be disenfranchised? Is any pact valid without their concurrence? On what criterion, moreover, were the original voters enfranchised? Did these include women? What in fact are the limits within which the equality of all men, whereby they become entitled to have a say in making the pact, is to be practically admitted? The possession of Reason? But what, in the absence of some original authority, is to decide at what age and in what circumstances men and women are to be considered sufficiently reasonable to be accorded the suffrage? All along the question is being hopelessly begged or eluded. For even supposing an agreed universal system of suffrage, is any pact valid between enfranchised members unless accepted unanimously? Of course, if all men were endowed with perfect reasonableness, unanimity would result. But then there would be no need for a pact. And in the absence of unanimity, has a minority not thereby an indefeasible right to secede? Rousseau refused to admit this right. Yet supposed indefeasible right of the majority to rule, which has proved to be the practical consequence of Rousseauism, is in reality a denial of Rousseau's basic thesis! Never, indeed, was a theory so utterly paradoxical, inconsistent, self-contradictory and contrary to established facts and common sense. It wallows from one fallacy to another, perhaps because Rousseau failed, in the first instance, to make this most important distinction, namely, that the two propositions: (1) that man is a rational animal, and (2) that man must needs act reasonably, do not mean the same thing. The first proposition is true. The second is false. The first supports the theory that good Government should be reasonable, that Reason is the criterion of good Government, that any Government, however formed, is legitimate if reasonable—all three true propositions. The second supports the theory that the popular will must be right, that a Government not based on the popular will must be wrong—both false propositions.

3. So far we have treated the question of authority in the abstract. In the concrete the question poses itself as follows: What man, or body of men, has the right to exercise authority? In other words, who has the right to perform the functions of the State?


We have seen that authority arises spontaneously as a condition of society. Historically speaking, the actual sovereign power is found to be wielded in innumerably different ways. In primitive societies it is often wielded under a patriarchal system or by a council of Elders. Or the constitution of a State, whether established in accordance with Law or Custom having the force of Law, may be based on the rule of one or of the few or of the many, according to circumstances. Have any of these forms of Government more than another the right to exercise authority? The answer is given, in accordance with the doctrines so much advertised during the past century, whether Rousseau’s theory be subscribed to or not, is that only the many have the right to exercise authority, in the sense that the “general will” is the only legitimate authority.


The most plausible reason given for this answer is that, the general good being the object of Government, the “general will” can alone insure the general good. But nobody has ever been able to give a satisfactory answer to the question why this should necessarily be so. Why should the “general will,” assuming that it is possible to determine it, be considered infallible? Is there any reason to suppose that the instinct of the mass is usually superior to the reason of the individual? Or have we to suppose that the mass acts reasonably? Of course, if we assume that mass action is always, or even generally, dictated by reasonable forethought, we might justly conclude that, having no other interest than to promote the general well-being, the authority of the mass has a better title to authority than any other. Unfortunately, however, it is precisely mass-action that is, in fact, the most unreasonable of human actions. In other words, if we trust the “general will,” we trust to a blind instinct, which, given that society is an organism, may indeed be one of Nature’s means of preserving the organism’s life: animals are endowed by a very acute instinct of the kind. But men are not merely animals, though man in the mass acts very like an animal. Is the State then to be guided in the last resort by instinct, when Reason is available—Reason, which, to say the least, is unquestionably a fitter instrument for preserving life?


Again, how is the “general will” to be determined? The State is not an organism endowed with a natural means of articulation. Some kind of artificial machinery has got to be established by which the “general will” may be made manifest. But if we appeal to each individual singly and make a sum of the results, we do not obtain a general verdict; we obtain a sum of individual verdicts, which is not the same thing. Any mathematician will confirm this, though it may not be self-evident to the layman at a glance. Of course, if we obtained, as the result of such an appeal, a unanimous verdict, and assumed, at the same time, that all members of the State, unwilling to exercise or incapable of exercising the suffrage (including minors, criminals, lunatics and domestic animals) tacitly supported the unanimous verdict of those who exercised the right to vote, the result might perhaps be regarded as an approximate equivalent to the “general will.” But even so, it would only be approximate, unless we further presupposed that each member, in registering his vote, solemnly and truly voted for what he considered the interests of the community at large, in the full realisation that the life of the community goes beyond that of a single generation, rather than in favour of his own personal interests or of those of his immediate generation. But such a presupposition is a fantasy; and how can we ever obtain unanimity in practice? Even in exceptional cases of crisis, engendering great excitement, with a single issue at stake, and when the decision to be taken is one practically decided in advance by the circumstances, would there be any hope of obtaining unanimity even in a small community? As for majority rule, it is still further removed from one determined by the “general will”; for, unless the majority be so large as to approach unanimity, a condition of affairs only less difficult to obtain than unanimity itself, the divergence between what is implied by the sum of individual wills and what is implied by the “general will” becomes all the more marked. In fact, therefore, there is no sure means of determining the “general will,” save, possibly, in tiny States where the whole of its members are able to assemble together in one place and there act en masse, after being duly excited in order to allow a full measure of electricity to circulate. Perhaps the surest way of gauging the “general will” would be by employing a medium. But I have not heard yet of any serious suggestion to employ a medium as a method of Government; although the greatest statesmen are usually endowed with a medium-like sense, by which, within limits, they are enabled, so to speak, to sound the “general will.” For by all means let the “general will” be sounded in so far as this be possible. But there is no reason whatever for necessarily allowing the actions of Government to be dictated by it.


The truth is that any such notion respecting the inherent right of the people as a whole to govern is manifestly absurd. This does not mean, however, that I deny all merit to the “general will,” especially when it is understood as that esprit de corps, issuing in patriotic sentiment. On the contrary, this may be a great force for good, and its latent presence is a sign of political maturity. Neither does what I have said mean that a popular form of Government may not be highly desirable. That is quite another question, which will be dealt with in its proper place. Here I am solely concerned with the concrete question as to what it is that sanctions the right to govern.


The right answer is a very simple one: The Moral Law, which is based on Reason. Different forms of Government arise according to circumstances. Government may take one form or another, as we have seen, whether popular or otherwise. But, whatever its form may be, there is only one thing that will give the right to govern: the Moral Law, Reason. If those who hold the reins of power have acquired their power in accordance with a just principle and govern in accordance with Reason, implying a due regard to the general welfare, which, above all, presupposes the moral welfare of the people, no one has the right to call in question the right of that Government to govern. This is the Divine Right of any Government, whether of Kings or of Parliaments—Divine because to act reasonably and in accordance with the Moral Law is to fulfil the will of God. It is an appalling thought if examined closely, this idea of enthroning the “general will” as sovereign, a ferocious beast in the place of that Reason should occupy. We know what a terrible thing a mob, unrestrained by authority, can be—blind, excessive, cruel. We know how dangerous and how contagious a war-fever, when peace is hanging in the balance. However such a theory, in fact, as that which ascribes the only true title to authority to the “general will,” ever came to be accepted by reasonable men, it is difficult to imagine. The truth is, as Whitehead—in the author’s humble opinion perhaps the greatest living philosopher and to-day by far the most eminent among non-Catholic philosophers—has pointed out in his Science and the Modern World, ours is not an Age of Reason, still less the eighteenth century, despite its “rationalism,” but an Age of Science; and that Science, vulgarly held to be the inseparable handmaiden of Reason, has made its greatest advances in an age characterised by its lack of interest in dialectics. “The Ages of Faith,” as he says, “were the Ages of Reason.” A truly reasonable age would surely have found sharper weapons from the armoury of the old Philosophy than the above shoddy implements wherewith to dispose the Kings and oligarchies, who, in recent centuries were abusing the authority they held by governing flagrantly in the interests of a class rather than that of the whole people. It has been left to Fascism to revive the use of the old weapons and, in driving by their means from high place Ineptitude and Folly, to prove their eternal efficacy.


4. Of course, sweet reasonableness, as we have had occasion to point out, is not always in practice to the fore. This fact alone is sufficient to condemn the principle that a majority possesses necessarily the right to rule, or, to take the opposite extreme, that an absolute Kingship is the only proper form of Government. No particular form of Government is, so to speak, presanctified. To govern in the interests of the general welfare is not, in fact, an easy matter. Government is an art, the exercise of which depends first and foremost on right principles and right intention, whatever the form of Government may be. Practical questions therefore arise as to how we are to secure rulers who will act constantly in accordance with right principles, with right intention; or as to how we are to secure, given right intention, the maximum of reasonableness in practice. And at what point has anyone the right to refuse allegiance to a constituted authority which appears to be erring in one or both of the above senses?


The answers which I propose to give to these questions are as follows: First, being practical questions, certain practical tests, certain practical ways and means, can propose the solutions to the difficulties they adumbrate. No Government, for instance, can in practice remain indefinitely in power if it continually and flagrantly misgoverns society. The instinctive “general will” comes in such cases, if the sense of self-preservation of the Government fails to bring about reform, or if common sense fails to accommodate matters, to be provoked into action at the instigation of, or in support of, a minority ready to suffer martyrdom in the name of what they hold to be reasonable. Reason and instinct in such cases, in fact, tend to combine and the Vox Populi to become the Vox Dei—and we have Revolution in or Dissolution of the State. Again, practical rules can be formed and should be formed, based upon experience and upon Reason, as to the proper constitution of Governments, in order to allow of their improvement, to allow of their progressive adaptation to changing conditions, and so as to admit of reasonable criticism and provide means by which incompetence and abuse of power may be minimised, that is, incompetent or tyrannous members of Government substituted in accordance with some constitutional device to meet the case in point. On the other hand, we have the test of Moral Law, which alone sets limits to the authority of the State and should be the main safeguard against the abuse of power, in that any flagrant and continuous violation of the Moral Law by the State sets individuals free to disobey the constituted authority.


Now I am aware that it may be objected to this late point that, where no independent moral authority is admitted, man has either to rely on his individual moral judgement, with nothing more than the choice of some Moral Philosophy and the Science of Casuistry to help him, or he must submit blindly to the authority of the State. I admit the dilemma; and when it arises, we are indeed theoretically reduced to allowing the criminal, so to speak, either way to act as judge in his own case. The absence of an independent moral authority affords excuses for both tyranny and irresponsible rebellion. But there is no theoretical alternative to these evils that I can see, when no independent moral authority is admitted. The practical tests are then the only tests. But where an independent moral authority is admitted, the full solution is available. Then we have the State on the one hand, supreme in temporal matters, the Church on the other, supreme in spiritual matters, the court of appeal of the oppressed, the moderator of tyrants. Thus, I maintain, the ideal of the Middle Ages, then never more than most imperfectly realised, of a Universal State conterminous with a Universal Church remains à l’ordre du jour, the ideal to which any true theory of the State must inevitably pay homage and command us to aspire.


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