Democratic Shoots Uprooted

The debate between smug elites claiming the masses cannot govern themselves and proponents of democracy never ends. Even in the U.S., where people have been congratulating themselves on having the world’s best government ever since colonial days, it rages on, with the elite seemingly more vociferous in defense of its greed as the evidence of its shortsightedness grows…and that in a culture that claims to be the fount of democratic thinking. The major contemporary ideological alternative to Western democratic thought is the land of bureaucracy, China, where top-down control, often intensely repressive, remains as solidly entrenched as in Qin Shi Huangdi’s time. But for a brief moment, more than two millennia ago, under Han Xiaowendi, who tried to reform governance and set China on what might have been the path of leading the world toward democracy, democratic shoots flourished. If the rule of law had taken hold in the world’s largest country 15 centuries before Magna Carta, how different human history might have been!

Punish the Guilty, Not the Innocent. Repression, so convenient and profitable, is almost always irresistible to the powerful. Even in the aftermath of the Han conquest of Qin, the idea of reforming governance by creating a system of justice that would recognize individual rights, was resisted by the ruling elite even to the point of fighting back against their own emperor.

In the twelfth month the emperor announced: Laws serve to insure the justness of rule, for they restrain violence and guide men of good intention. But at present when a man has been found guilty of violating the law, his parents, his wife and children, and the other members of his family, though they are guilty of no offence, are brought under accusation as well and even forced to become slave labourers. I find this practice utterly unacceptable. The officials concerned with such affairs all replied, “The people are incapable of governing themselves, and therefore we must have laws to restrain them…. The emperor said, “It is my understanding that if the laws are just, the people will be obedient, and if the punishments are meet, the people will comply. Moreover, it is the duty of the officials to shepherd the people and lead them into good. If the officials, having proved themselves incapable of such leadership, should in addition punish te people in the name of laws which are unjust, they would become on the contrary the injurers of the people and the doers of violence themselves. How then could violence be restrained?” [Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian [Tr Burton Watson] Vol. 1, 290-1; Shi Ji Ch. 10, 419-210.]

十二月,上曰:「法者,治之正也,所以禁暴而率善人也。今犯法已論,而使毋罪 之父母妻子同產坐之,及為收帑,朕甚不取。…有司皆曰:「民不能自治,故 為法以禁之。…上曰:「朕 聞法正則民愨,罪當則民從。且夫牧民而導之善者,吏也。其既不能導,又以不正之法 罪之,是反害於民為暴者也。何以禁之?朕未見其便,其孰計之。[Shi Ji on Project Gutenburg.]

Curiously, the same elitist non sequitor that is used today by powerful people who want to oppress everyone else is used here: a call for just laws is dismissed by an irrelevant claim that “the people cannot govern themselves” [

民不能自治 min bu neng zi zhi]. Whether or not the masses can govern themselves is completely distinct from the issue of applying the law fairly, convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent. Emperor Xiaowen was not calling for chaos; quite the contrary: he was proposing that eliciting obedience through fairness constituted a more effective means of governing than arbitrary harshness (which of course facilitated all manner of elite corruption at the expense of future instability). More, while Emperor Xiaowen was far from advocating real democracy here, his attack on arbitrary rule, as the court officials evidently realized, cracked the door to the real rule of law, a system that would apply not just to the masses but to the rulers as well–a principle that even today is headline news when observed. Indeed, he did everything but explicitly justify revolt against oppression, an incendiary statement that Sima Qian, courageous a historian as he was, might not have dared to quote decades later when “top-down management” was once again all the vogue. It would be fascinating to know what ?more Emperor Xiaowen may really have said…

By the time of the official dynastic history, this reform was given a mere eight characters [Han Shu, Ch. 4, 110]. Was it judged unimportant or too hot too handle?

No One Is Above Criticism.  Xiaowen’s next step was more fundamental, asserting that no one was above criticism, a principle that constitutes the threshold between good and bad governance.

The emperor announced: When the dynasties of ancient times ruled the empire, they set up in their courts the “flags for advancing good” and the “boards for recording criticisms.” In this way they were able to carry out their rule successfully and to invite criticisms of their policies. The present laws, however, recognize a category of offences known as “criticism and evil talk”, and because the officials are afraid of being accused of these they do not dare to express their feelings in full. The emperor accordingly has no way to learn of his errors. Under such circumstances, how can I expect to attract worthy men from distant regions? Let the laws pertaining to these offences be abolished.  [Watson, 296.]

上曰:「古之治天下,朝有進善之旌,誹謗之木,所以通治道而來諫者。今法有誹 謗妖言之罪,是使眾臣不敢盡情,而上無由聞過失也。將何以來遠方之賢良?其除之。[Shi Ji, 424.]

It is sobering that some three to four thousand years after these simple methods for obtaining feedback from the populace were set up, neither in China nor most of the rest of the world are politicians sufficiently mature to tolerate criticism, which most of them still equate to “evil talk.”

Although the conservative forces of repression won more of this argument than they lost throughout the subsequent course of Chinese history, official Chinese history did at least retain the full quote from Sima Qian.   Both the official dynastic history and Sima Guang’s court-sponsored history of China a millenium later contain virtually the identical quote [Han shu, Vol. 4, 118; ZJTJ, Vol. 1, 453], suggesting real respect for ideas a dictator might find dangerous.

Accepting Responsibility. It may seem the height of hypocrisy for a leader to assert full power while placing responsibility for mistakes on his subordinates, but that system was apparently formally established in early China. Thirteen years into his reign, Emperor Xiaowen stated:

I have heard that disaster arises naturally in response to the hatreds of the ruler, while good fortune is brought about by his virtue; it is thus that the way of Heaven operates. Therefore all the faults of my officials must have their origin in me. Now the post of private invocator is intended to transfer the ruler’s errors to his subordinates, which is only to make my lack of virtue clearer than ever. I find such a practice wholly unacceptable. Let the post be abolished. [Watson, 299-300.]

蓋聞天道禍自怨起而福繇德興。百官之非,宜由朕躬。今祕祝 之官移過於下,以彰吾之不德,朕甚不取。其除之。[Shi Ji, 427; ZJTJ 495.]

Han shu [125] notes the abolition without any reference to the all-important principle of leadership responsibility; Sima Guang’s Zizhitongjian restores the Shi ji‘s text. Was the principle less “politically incorrect” in the Song?

The Ruler’s Duty Is to Set the Moral Tone.  A four-character reference in Han shu states that “mutilating punishments were abolished” [125]. One can almost hear a stern FBI agent intoning, “The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Those facts may or may not include the beautiful story told by Sima Qian of Tiying, who went to the capital to fight for her father, who faced a life-ruining mutilation as punishment for a misdeed, but far more significant than the facts is the justification the emperor gave for abolishing such cruel justice:

If the leadership and guidance of the rule are not sincere the people in their ignorance will fall into crime [Watson, 300-301]

夫馴道不純而愚民陷焉 [Shi Ji 427]

Xiaowen here enunciates a vision of leadership that could, if honored, have promoted China–at a time when the best the West had to offer was a collapsing Roman* republic–to global leadership in the invention of modern democracy, a far more honorable accomplishment than, for example, the wars of expansion against northern tribes conducted by Emperor Wu or the path-breaking 16th century voyages of Cheng Ho along the coast of the Indian ocean in which modern Chinese politicians take so much pride.

The authors of the official dynastic history may have felt bluntly pointing out the issue of leadership responsibility for popular misbehavior (N.B.: reference is made to a legal text) would be considered politically incorrect by their more control-oriented (not to say, “abusive”) rulers, an understandable attitude given that Sima Qian himself suffered, for his historical honesty, a mutilating punishment (though perhaps not one on the short list abolished by Emperor Xiaowen). The principle that the moral qualities of the leader flow down to society and that the leader therefore has the duty to conduct himself properly remains under severe attack even in the most “developed” of modern democracies, so it is no surprise that Xiaowen’s insight and humility were quickly swept under the rug some 14 centuries before Magna Carta.

Xiaowen’s rule is, in its implications, a brilliant light in the course of Chinese history, albeit quickly darkened by leaders more interested in following Emperor Wu’s expansionist policy. Punishing the guilty while protecting the innocent, encouraging criticism of officials, leaders taking responsibility for their behavior, and focusing the justice system on eliciting good behavior already constitute an impressive record of reform. Add two other policies evidently characterizing Xiaowen’s reign–an economic policy designed to promote the welfare of “the man in the rice paddy” and a foreign policy based on good neighborliness–and one has an impressive set of defenses against abuse of power and a solid foundation for the invention of democracy (which rests on the principle that regardless of how honorable the rulers are, the attitude of the people must, to preserve good governance, be at a minimum “trust but verify.” The foundation of good governance that Emperor Xiaowen began constructing could have changed history.


* In defense of the Romans, however, see this brief comment.

Taking the ‘Stupor of Slavery’ for Peace

Conservatives, by definition, oppose revolution; honorable conservatives–those aspiring to conserve honorable traditions, not just their own wealth–perceive the point at which revolution becomes justified.

Les crimes de notre révolution républicaine étaient l’ouvrage des passions, qui laissent toujours des ressources : il y avait désordre et non pas destruction dans la société. La morale était blessée, mais elle n’était pas anéantie. La conscience avait ses remords ; une indifférence destructive ne confondait point l’innocent et le coupable : aussi les malheurs de ce temps auraient pu être promptement réparés. Mais comment guérir la plaie faite par un gouvernement qui posait en principe le despotisme ; qui, ne parlant que de morale et de religion, détruisait sans cesse la morale et la religion par ses institutions et ses mépris ; qui ne cherchait point à fonder l’ordre sur le devoir et sur la loi, mais sur la force et sur les espions de police ; qui prenait la stupeur de l’esclavage pour la paix d’une société bien organisée, fidèle aux coutumes de ses pères, et marchant en silence dans le sentier des antiques vertus ? Les révolutions les plus terribles sont préférables à un pareil état. Si les guerres civiles produisent les crimes publics, elles enfantent au moins les vertus privées, les talents et les grands hommes. C’est dans le despotisme que disparaissent les empires : en abusant de tous les moyens, en tuant les âmes encore plus que les corps, il amène tôt ou tard la dissolution et la conquête. [Chateaubriand, De Buonaparte et des Bourbons, 1814, on French Wikisource.]

For the Peasants, Land or Stones?

From the perspective of post-Soviet history, when we are all too aware of the hideous cruelty of the Soviet system, a look back at the policy positions of the Bolsheviks when they constituted a tiny minority of weak but loud-mouthed idealists raises a troubling question: how, as turbulent events unfold and all sides contend over policy, are citizens to distinguish true reformers from power-hungry impostors?

Et la gauche, de fait, grimpa sur la table et prononca des discours: quelque long qu’eut ete le discours de Nahamkes, il ne reussit pas a rogner les debats, ceux-ci s’etalerent encore sur trois heures, et il se trouva quinze orateurs. Certes, personne ne promettait plus de mourir sur-le-champ, mais les bolchebiks exigeaient la cessation immediate de la guerre, l’introduction immediate de la semaine de huit heures, la distribution immediate de la terre appartenant aux proprietaires terriens, et refusaient pour cette raison tout contact avec le Comite de la Douma, s’opposaient a la formation d’un gouvernement bourgeois et reclamaient la constitution d’un gouvernement revolutionnaire….[Readers of the French text from which this excerpt is taken, note the curious added sentence (here, not translated.]

–Que voyons nous? clamaient les bolcheviks. Nous sommes descendus dans la rue, le sang a coule, et qu’est-ce qu’on nous propose aujourd’hui? La contre-revolution tsariste! Goutchkov, Rodzianko, les manufacturiers, Konovalov vont se moquer du peuple. En guise de terre, les paysans recevront des pierres! [Mars dix-sept, Ch. 333.]

А большевики и межрайонцы полезли на стол с речами, и те прения ещё потянулись на три часа, и нашлось 15 ораторов. Никто, правда, больше не обещал немедленно умереть, но требовали большевики немедленного окончания войны, немедленно ввести 8-часовой рабочий день, немедленно раздавать помещичью землю, а для того — никакого контакта с Думским Комитетом, недать образоваться буржуазному правительству, а создать революционное.

— Что же получилось? — кричали большевики. — Ходили на улицу, текла кровь, а что преподносят сегодня? Царскую контрреволюцию! Гучков, Родзянко, фабриканты, Коновалов посмеются над народом. Крестьянам вместо земли дадут камень! []

How could one not admire the brave Bolshevik minority demanding such moderate reforms as ending the war, establishing an eight-hour day, and giving the peasants the land they were tilling? What would the history of the 20th century have been like if the self-satisfied, comfortable liberal elite had only had the courage, decency, and farsightedness to offer these reforms themselves right then in February 1917 rather than handing them to the Bolsheviks as trump cards in the emerging game of power?

Obey! We Will Take Care of You!

Why do they hate us? We were doing just fine; the country was stable? What could they have been thinking?

Irrefrenee, insolente, l’emeute inondait la Russie, et la Stavka n’y faisait pas obstacle. Et faisait savoir que les choses s’etaient tassees.

Etonnante, la soudainete du changement: qu’est-ce qui avait craque? qui s’etait rompu? Il y avait encore trois jours, tout cela etait tenu pour criminel et chatie comme tel, et maintenant voila: ca coulait, et personne n’y mettait d’obstacle. [Mars Dix-Sept Ch 297.]

Невозбранно и нагло разливался по России мятеж — а Ставка не препятствовала. И сообщала об успокоении.
И поражала внезапность изменения: что — хрустнуло? что сломилось? Три дня назад всё это было уголовно наказуемо, — а вот текло, и никто не препятствовал.

Stupidity or Treason?

Leader of Duma moderates, albeit viewed by the Tsarist faction as a dangerous radical, Pavel Milyukov twice stated in Duma speeches (1915 and 1916):

from one end of the Russian land to the other, there are spreading the dark rumors of treachery and treason [dhr.history] [Russian text.]

In his 1916 speech, he also quoted from a declaration of provincial zemstvo boards (emerging local political institutions):

Painful, terrible suspicions, sinister rumors of treachery and treason, of occult forces fighting for the benefit of Germany and striving, through the destruction of national unity and the sowing of dissention, to prepare the ground for a disgraceful peace, have reached a point where it is generally felt that an enemy hand is secretly influencing the course of our State affairs. It is but natural that from such foundation there should arise the rumor that our governing circles have admitted the uselessness of further struggle, the timeliness for ending the war, and the necessity of a separate peace.

Milyukov flatly states his perspective as of November 1916, three months before the first Russian Revolution “suddenly” broke out:

Today we see and understand with this Government we cannot legislate, any more than we can with this Government, lead Russia to victory….

does it matter, gentlemen, as a practical question, whether we are, in the present case, dealing with stupidity or treason? When the Duma keeps everlastingly insisting that the rear must be organized for a successful struggle, the Government persists in claiming that organizing the country means organizing a revolution, and deliberately prefers chaos and disorganization. What is it, stupidity or treason? 

These were the opinions of upper class but non-ruling elites toward the Tsarist regime heading the country’s war effort. One can only imagine the degree of anti-regime feeling in the rest of society if the most comfortable propertied elements of the emerging upper middle class were this alienated. But the regime was nonetheless taken completely by surprise when in the course of a couple days, the whole population of the capital overtly turned its collective back.

Implementing Revolution

Political power at the top rests on or conflicts with economic power beneath. The dynamics of this are complicated and obscured by the slow evolution of the underlying economic correlation of forces relative to the faster and more visible political correlation of forces.

Единовластие, необходимое условие устойчивости каждого режима, сохраняется до тех пор, пока господствующему классу удается навязывать всему обществу свои экономические и политические формы как единственно возможные….

Режим двоевластия возникает лишь из непримиримого столкновения классов, возможен поэтому только в революционную эпоху и образует собою один из ее основных элементов….

Историческая подготовка переворота приводит в предреволюционный период к такому положению, когда класс, призванный осуществить новую общественную систему, не став еще хозяином страны, фактически сосредоточивает в своих руках значительную долю государственного могущества, тогда как официальный аппарат государства остается еще в руках старых владык. Это и есть исходное двоевластие всякой революции….

Общество нуждается в концентрации власти и, в лице господствующего класса или в данном случае двух полугосподствующих классов, непримиримо стремится к ней. Расщепление власти предвещает не что иное, как гражданскую войну. [Trotsky.]

A single, government, the necessary condition of stability in any régime, is preserved so long as the ruling class succeeds in putting over its economic and political forms upon the whole of society the only forms possible….

The two-power régime arises only out of irreconcilable class conflicts – is possible, therefore, only in a revolutionary epoch, and constitutes one of its fundamental elements….

The historic preparation of a revolution brings about, in the pre-revolutionary period, a situation in which the class which is called to realise the new social system, although not yet master of the country, has actually concentrated in its hands a significant share of the state power, while the official apparatus of the government is still in. the hands of the old lords. That is the initial dual power in every revolution….

Society needs a concentration of power, and in the person of the ruling class-or, in the situation we are discussing, the two half-ruling classes-irresistibly strives to get it. The splitting of sovereignty foretells nothing less than civil war. [Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Ch. 11.]

Solzhenitsyn lays out extensive evidence in The Red Wheel supporting Trotsky’s zero-sum perspective that “society needs a concentration of power,” i.e., that democracy is a mirage because multiple power centers cannot cooperate over the long run to create a society governed through compromise and generosity: the Tsar refusing to compromise with Duma liberals, Duma liberals and the Bolsheviks trying to undermine each other, the Bolsheviks planning to set the liberals up for a fall by supporting their rise to power as (unknown to them) an interim solution while the Bolsheviks amassed absolute power behind the scenes. The question remains, however, whether or not Trotsky’s zero-sum negativism is a function of short-sighted Russian viewpoints of the era or reveals true human limitations.

An ‘Epidemic of Arrests’

When society chooses revolution as the method for throwing the rascals out, how can it ensure that a better system takes the place of the rejected old one? The story of the creation of the monstrous Bolshevik “legal” system, a story written in so much blood, is one we need to understand, and Solzhenitsyn’s telling of that story may be his greatest gift to us all. His theoretical account, priceless reading for all political scientists, starts with “The Law as a Child,” a chapter in Gulag Archipelago, but Solzhenitsyn has much more to say about the tortured process of the Russian revolutionary reinvention of a legal system in The Red Wheel series of historical novels on the Russian Revolution. If the Bolshevik military began creating Soviet law with arbitrary decisions in the field during the Russian Civil War, as analyzed in “The Law as a Child,” that crisis-response decision-making process justified by a paper-thin theoretical conceptualization by low-level functionaries stood on a foundation of experience that began in the first March 1917 days of the revolution.

A day into the February Revolution, one Pechekhonov, who would survive to become a minister in the provisional regime only to be exiled in 1922 by the Bolsheviks, announced the establishment of a new authority for the Petersburg “Quarter:”

Империя Романовых стояла 300 лет, и у чиновничества её были готовые, выработанные организационные формы и приёмы. И вот надо было в один день начать на неочищенном месте, в ещё не известных формах, с ещё не найденными приёмами и с ещё не осмысленными целями: ни сам Пешехонов, ни его сотрудники по комиссариату — то есть бывшей полицейской части — не могли представить и предположить, в чём же именно будет заключаться их деятельность….

Наугад назначенные отделы комиссариата сразу переполнились добровольными сотрудниками, и на первый взгляд — вполне безкорыстными….

Ещё больше было помощников другого толка: они не записывались в сотрудники, но, не предупреждая и по собственному почину, совершали повсюду обыски, реквизиции, аресты — и потом с торжеством несли и катили захваченные трофеи в комиссариат и вели арестованных. К счастью, Пешехонов, ещё в Таврическом заметив, как много
ведут арестованных, предвидел такое явление и сразу же назначил в составе комиссариата «судебную комиссию». Арестованных приводила иногда целая толпа — но часто тут же и расходилась, и через пять минут не у кого бывало узнать и спросить: на основании чего задержано это лицо. Среди них могли быть самые опасные преступники, но и самые невинные люди, — и что же делать с ними дальше? Судебная комиссия и должна была кого освобождать, а о ком составлять протоколы, указывать свидетелей….

…никто не был власть в Петрограде сейчас — ни комиссар, ни Совет депутатов, ни тем более Думский Комитет, — а вся полнота власти была у толпы. Власть её была — самоуправство, и сама толпа и все понимали так, что это и есть настоящая народная власть. [Ch 250, pp. 314-316.]

L’empire des Romanov avait tenu trois cents ans et ses fonctionnaires avaient des formes d’organisation, des methodes toutes pretes et parfairement rodees. Or, voici qu’il fallait tout recommencer en un jour sur un terrain en friche, sous une forme qu’on ignorait, avec des methodes qui n’etaient pas encore au point et a des fins que l’on ne cernait pas completement: ni Pechekhonov lui-meme, ni ses collaborateurs du commissariat–autrement dit de l’ancien poste de police–ne pouvaient impaginer ni supposer en quoi consisterait leur activite….

Nommees au hasard, les sections du commissariat avaient aussitot deborde de collaborateurs volontaires, a premiere vue parfaitement desinteresses….

Il y avait plus encore d’auxiliaires d’un autre genre: ils ne se faisaient pas porter au nombre des collaborateurs mais, sans porevenir, de leur propre initiative, se livraient en tous lieux a des perquisitions, des requisitions, des arrestations,–puis rapportaient, triomphanats, a pied ou en voiture leurs trophees au commissariat et amenaient leurs prisonniers.

Par bonheur, Pechekhonov qui, au palais de Tauride deja, avait note qu’on amenait vraiment beaucoup de detenus, avait prevu ce phenomene et, d’emblee, nomme au sein du commissariat une “commission judiciare.” Parfois, les personnes apprehendees etaient conduites par toute une foule qui, souvent, se dispersait sur-le-champ; de sorte que cinq minutes plus tard, on ne savait plus aupres de qui se renseigner, a qui demander sur quoi reposait l’arrestation de tel ou tel individu. Il pouvait se trouver parmi les prsonniers les criminels les plus dangereux ou les victimes les plus innocentes,–et qu’en faire ensuite?…

…personne ne faisait autorite en cet instant a Petrograd, ni le commaissaire, ni le Soviet des Deputes, ni, a plu forte raison, le Comite de la Douma,–la totalite du pouvoir appartenait a la foule. Et le pouvoir de la foule etait l’arbitraire, et elle avait conscience, comme tout un chacun, que c’etait cela, le vrai pouvoir populaire! [Ch 250.]

An “epidemic of arrests” by an out-of-control crowd demanding the punishment of “enemies of the revolution” overwhelmed new organs of government still in the process of creation and completely lacking even any structured method of appointing officials, much less any moral or legal foundation for action or any body of law on which to base decisions: the law as a new-born infant.