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Political Language and the Lust for Tyranny

The human mind is cunning, and so bad ideas continue to appeal to God-rejecting men. Indeed, these bad ideas can be dressed-up in nice terminology so that the most virulent forms of tyranny are advanced under the banner of freedom and liberation.

  • Michael Wagner,
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Dressing Up Bad Ideas
The human mind is cunning, and so bad ideas continue to appeal to God-rejecting men.  Indeed, these bad ideas can be dressed-up in nice terminology so that the most virulent forms of tyranny are advanced under the banner of freedom and liberation.  And this is just what is happening today in the western world.  Terms such as democracy and tolerance are used to camouflage the most dreadful things.

The word democracy is infused with exclusively positive connotations.  Nobody wants to be seen as opposing democracy.  It is used to refer to political systems where citizens are involved in the selection of their rulers, as opposed to dictatorships where they are not.  The Cold War was commonly seen in the West as a struggle between democracies on the one side, and communist dictatorships on the other.

But for some thinkers on the Left, the Cold War was actually between different forms of democracy.  For example, world-renowned Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson presented this view in a series of radio messages broadcast in the 1960s by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Subsequently published in a book entitled The Real World of Democracy ,1 these lectures argued that there were three forms of
government in the present world that could legitimately be called democracies: the liberal democracies of the West, the Soviet bloc countries, and the one-party states of the Third World . As Macpherson put it, "[D]emocracy is not properly to be equated with our unique Western liberal-democracy," instead, "the clearly non-liberal systems which prevail in the Soviet countries, and the somewhat different non-liberal systems of most of the underdeveloped countries of Asia and Africa , have a genuine historical claim to the title democracy."2

The meaning of democracy has undergone some change over time.  It hasn't always referred to the kind of constitutional system common in the Western countries.  For example, "Democracy originally meant rule by the common people, the plebeians.  It was very much a class affair: it meant the sway of the lowest and largest class."3 Thus Macpherson argued that Soviet communism and other one-party states can legitimately be called democracies, based on this definition.  Indeed, he used this conception of democracy to cover the most brutal and repressive regimes. The dictatorship of the proletariat promoted by Karl Marx entailed genuine democracy in this view.  Macpherson noted that many people would find it outrageous to consider the dictatorship of the proletariat as a form of democracy. "But to call it democracy was not outrageous at all: it was simply to use the word in its original and then normal sense."4

Democracy a la Lenin
It gets worse.  Lenin extended Marx's theory by arguing that the revolution would need to be undertaken by a relatively small group of class-conscious people he called the vanguard, the Communist Party.  Because the vast majority of people in any society are debased by the structure of the old society (in Leftist lingo they have false consciousness), they cannot be trusted to participate in political decision-making. To allow their participation would just perpetuate the problems of the old society.  Only the vanguard could bring about the necessary reforms.  "Lenin, building on Marx, came out for a seizure of power by a vanguard who would forcibly transform the basic relations of society in such a way that the people would become undebased and capable of a fully human existence, at which point compulsive government would no longer be needed."5 In Macpherson's view, this rule of the vanguard to "forcibly transform" society is a legitimate democracy.

He justified this view by evoking what he called the "broader concept of democracy" involving "an equality as could only be fully realized in a society where no class was able to dominate or live at the expense of others."6 The so-called broader concept of democracy legitimizes the Leninist state.  "Wherever the circumstances are such that no motion towards this kind of society is possible except through the action of a vanguard, then the vanguard state, so long as it remains true to its purpose, may be called democratic."7 Thus an out-right communist state is (or at least can be) legitimately called a democracy.  Many of the most brutal, bloodthirsty, and repressive regimes in the history of the world were democracies in this sense. 

Using a similar line of argumentation, the one-party dictatorships of the Third World can also be justified as democracies.  Invoking Rousseau, Macpherson stated that one-party states can be legitimately called democracies because "there is in these countries a general will, which can express itself through, and probably only through, a single party."8 As a result, "opposition to the dominant party appears to be, and sometimes actually is, destructive of the chances of nationhood.  In such circumstances opposition appears as treason against the nation."9 Thus a one-party state, where opposition to the ruling party is considered "treason," is a legitimate form of democracy.

Creative Semantics
It bears repeating that Macpherson was an internationally known and respected political scientist.  The views he expressed were not the rantings of an activist running wild in the streets.  Some elements of the intellectual Left truly believe that a Marxist-Leninist state (or any other Left-wing single-party state) is a genuine democracy.  And for those of us who are Canadians, it is a cause for concern that these lectures appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a branch of the Government of Canada.

Of course, this sort of Left-wing extremism and their creative semantics is not confined to Canadian intellectuals.  Herbert Marcuse, an American academic and New Left guru, did some interesting work on the concept of "tolerance."  In his article "Repressive Tolerance,"10 Marcuse argued for what he called "liberating tolerance."  Marcuse was concerned about the expression of views that support "the Establishment," especially conservative views.  Because conservatives are able to make their case in public and in the media, many people are influenced by their perspective.  This perspective will reinforce or further develop the "false consciousness" of people that results from their living within a capitalist society, and which prevents them from supporting the utopian schemes of the Left.  Somehow the "false consciousness" must be overcome in order for the Left to achieve its goals.

The solution proposed by Marcuse was the implementation of "liberating tolerance."  This kind of tolerance involves "stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness."11 The conservative message must be stopped.  "Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.  As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance" it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word."12 Marcuse promoted "intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word," intolerance, that is, "toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right."13 In other words, his concept of tolerance was "a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right."14  This form of tolerance is red in tooth and claw.  In the Marcusian definition, tolerance here means the out-right suppression of conservative political beliefs.

To most people in the Western world, explicit appeals for dictatorship and repression are repulsive. Thus the Left's most tyrannical proposals are dressed-up to be made more palatable. Beginning with the original definition of democracy, Macpherson reasoned his way into advocating communist dictatorships and other Left-wing one-party states as legitimate forms of democracy.  Herbert Marcuse reasoned his way into advocating the suppression of his political opponents as "liberating tolerance."  Tyrannical ideas are sugarcoated in a kind of semantic subterfuge designed to divert attention from their real implications. The lust for tyranny is hidden behind clever political language.  But the deceptive terminology cannot hide the fact that the utopian dreams of these God-rejecting men would certainly lead to a hell-on-earth.

From a Biblical perspective there is no doubt that the political dreams of the Left are impossible to realize. Their assumptions reject God, or at least His real involvement in the world, and view human nature as changeable and unknowable.  With such false conceptions of God and man, their most far-reaching efforts at political change are always doomed.  Unfortunately, the people who get in the way are also doomed, as history has clearly shown.


1. C. B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy (Toronto, ON: House of Anasi Press, 1998).

2. Ibid, 3.

3. Ibid., 5.

4. Ibid, 15.

5. Ibid., 19.

6. Ibid., 22.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 27.

9. Ibid., 26.

10. Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance" in Robert P. Wolff, ed., A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1997).

11. Ibid., 111.

12. Ibid., 109.

13. Ibid., 110.

14. Ibid., 119.

  • Michael Wagner

Michael Wagner is a home schooling father, an independent researcher and writer, and the author of Christian Citizenship Guide: Christianity and Canadian Political Life. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta and lives in Edmonton with his wife and eleven children.

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