Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reaction against democracy in the West

Iqbal talked about “the reaction against democracy in England and France”, but the very phrase is met with great surprise whenever I mention it in my workshops:
  • When did England and France react against democracy?
  • Are those societies not the bastions of democracy?
  • Are they not the yardsticks by which we need to measure and judge our own democracy?
This is the kind of reaction I usually get, and this may show that the generation of Iqbal knew something that has not been transferred to us. The purpose of my recent posts was just to fill the gap.
Iqbal may have been referring to the following developments:
  • Democracy did not last for long in France after the famous French Revolution of 1789. Instead, Napoleon Bonaparte became “emperor” in 1804. The country did not go back to democracy even after Napoleon was ousted ten years later.
  • In 1830, a “basic” democracy was introduced in France. The king was subjected to a parliament, but the right to choose its members was restricted to a few of the wealthiest male citizens. Even this was met with sarcasm from writers like Stendhal who reportedly said something to the effect that in democracy, heads are “counted” but not weighed.
  • In 1848, most male citizens of France, including the work class, were allowed to vote. The elite reacted very strongly against this development. The poet Charles Baudelaire became their mouthpiece, with his anthology The Flowers of Evil in 1857.
  • In England too, the right to vote was restricted to the property holders. The Second Bill of Reforms, adopted in 1867, extended the voting right to almost the entire urban population, including the working class. Matthew Arnold was the most prominent intellectual to react against this with a set of lectures, Culture and Anarchy, beginning the same year.
In our times, even cigarette packs come with health warning but the works of writers like Stendhal, Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold are handed down to unsuspecting students in developing nations without the slightest clue that these writers were opposed to the basic idea of democracy and may have believed the masses to be “fit for stables”. Even the teachers in departments of literature and social sciences in our universities are often ignorant of these issues.


  1. Democracy is an interesting topic in our own context as, Muslims, Pakistanis and the lovers of free world, but at the same time we are fighting and wrestling with the “tyranny of the majority” as Muslim, as Pakistani and as citizen of world.

  2. Surely, those who nurture (hidden or public) any hint of the belief that the masses to be “fit for stables” are suspect in every other statement, action, theology or ideology.

    People who are this arrogant come in all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities.

    Time is well-passed for such a crucial measuring tool as Iqbal and now our host here is clearly exposing.

    Among the logical questions such reminders raise is what are WE going to do to right this wrong in our OWN democracy.

  3. Akhtar and Connie, thanks.

    Connie, with all humility I would like to caution you and other readers against an all-out condemnation of these poets and writers, like Baudelaire, who declare the masses to be "fit for stables".

    These writers also have their value in society. We discover this, not through logic, but through our eargerness to accomodate the opinions of those close friends of ours who may have enjoyed these poets, and may love them (and there is a LOT which I am trying to put into these few words, while trying to be brief).

    This is a lesson which I might not have learnt except from Waheed Murad (see my posts about "Ishara" on the Khurram's Desk blog).

  4. Connie, in terms of what American democracy can do today, my humble opinion is, two things to begin with:

    1. Restore that concept of "consensus literature", and this can only be done by inviting an open discussion on Iqbal, not only in the universities but also on the streets of America (this does not mean an attempt to get him "accepted", but just to get him "introduced")

    2. Study the political development of Pakistan, especially since 1947, in an objective and impartial manner: i.e., to say, not judging it in the light of the American constitution only (although that is also important at least for Americans), but also trying to see WHAT ENABLED PAKISTAN TO SURVIVE - it has outlived the super power Russia, hasn't it? Pakistan's martial laws, disruption of democratic governments, and other curses may seem oppressive when seen from an American point of view but they were PICNICS when compared with what Stalin's Russians had to go through, and Stalin's Russia still couldn't make it to the 21st Century while Pakistan did - HOW?

    In my humble opinion, this is where to begin.

  5. I am puzzled by any indication I should embrace Baudelaire & others who declare the masses to be "fit for stables" - yet I can seek to find common ground with friends/family/acquaintances who are a in some respects "class - arrogant" while they may embrace some aspects of morality/greatness. OK, yes, I will try again to follow this train of thought while my very nature & what I understand of Allah/God/Spirit has always embraced such an opposite point of view?? Yet, I usually embrace your insights so am willing to stretch (a little) :)

    I will try to find another day (or month? :) to understand your humble suggestions for bettering US democracy...if there's a chance left??

  6. I finally left a short comment under the Stendhal piece...and one tho't comes to mind...Shafique Ali, have you run across anything substantial in Iqbal which you may RE-interpret or disagree with just because Iqbal was educated in Europe?

  7. Greetings,

    Thank you for this post, and the follow-up comments.

    These poets, who express ideas seemingly contrary to democracy, also, at the same time, expose the society in which they live. They bring into the open what may otherwise remain more hidden. In this sense, then, as I'm conceiving of it now, light can be shone upon their ideas, and critique can follow. I sense this as potentially beneficial in the sense of *movement* toward unity.

    All good wishes,