Democracy and Democratic Social
Change From a Burkean Perspective

David Cratis Williams

Truman State University

Position Paper, Burke Society Conference, May 1996

In the Burkean orientation, discourse--and the necesssary and inevitable recalcitrances to it--constitutes the psychological and social worlds, and when these worlds are enacted politically we are immediately tossed into a "parliamentary wrangle." It would seem evident on the face of things that Burke's vision of the parliamentary wrangle is anti-authoritarian; indeed, his well known critique of Mein Kampf would seem to emphasize the value of inefficient wranglings over and against the brutal and inhumane efficiencies of authoritarianism. One of the questions before this seminar, it seems to me, is whether Burke's theories of discourse in general and symbolic action in particular imbibe in more than a counter-statement to authoritarianism. Specifically, the question is whether an impicit theory of democratic social action, indeed of democracy itself, may be lurking within Burke's discourse world. In my view, there is one, and it is embedded in Burke's view not of rhetoric per se but rather his insistence upon the ineradicable omnipresence of dialectic. In this brief position paper, I will first offer an "explication" of what I see as the necessarily democratic nature of Burke's theories of (initially) aesthetics and (ultimately) symbolic action, then suggest the vital role of the critic, and more broadly of criticism itself, in a dynamic and adapting "Burkean democracy," and finally offer a "plan for reading" contemporary efforts toward democratization in the Russian Federation.

Much of Burke's writing which seems to address fairly directly questions of goverance and of political theory are specifically directed against fascism and nazism, and they were written--by and large--in the historical epoch when the choices globally appeared to be between seemingly failed (democratic) capitalism, (capitalistic) fascism, and (theoretically democratic) communism. While the emphasis in distinguishing among those three focused on twin issues of economics and authoritarianism, with Burke clearly favoring some form of anti-authoritarian socialism, there was (at least in my reading) an assumption of democratic process. That is, Burke's rejection of capitalism and embrace of the communistic ideal (to be distinguished from communism per se) was not a rejection of democracy at all; rather, there was at least in the pre-Stalin trials days an assumption that communism was, in fact, politically democratic while economically socialistic.

One of the locations in Burke's early writings where these associations begin to emerge is in the "Program" essay, first published in Counter-Statement (1931). Counter-Statement, on the whole, is a collection of essays on aesthetics which praise artistic ideals and which set forth a technical rhetoric for the attainment of the maximum artistic effect ("eloquence," as Burke labels it in "Psychology and Form"). But, in contrast to his professed role model for much of the 1920's--Flaubert--, Burke could not envision a pure "art for art's sake": art, in Burke's view, was always produced with a certain attitude, and that attitude must necessarily have implications for the social and political world. In addition to a mastery of technical rhetoric, then, an artist must have a "program." Burke writes in the preface to the first edition, "But any scheme of thinking or living must obviously require some specific social structure--and the 'Program' seeks to consider, in a general way, what this social structure would have to become if our principles were to prevail: what, in other words, could be the particular pratical results of this particular 'aesthetic'" (ix). While Burke's "Program" is, by and large, a fairly flippant defense of "agro-bohemianism" (the essay is clearly written with an attitude!), it nonetheless contains serious points, some of which bear upon the issue of democracy.

In a short section of "Program" entitled "Fascism-democracy," Burke aligns fascism with efficiency (univocality) and democracy with inefficiency (the parliamentary wrangle). Art, and hence artists, must properly be aligned with inefficient democracies. In a significant passage, Burke writes: "The aesthetic (by our definition--the aesthetic, that is, this particular brand of the aesthetic, the anti-practical) would be driven back to democracy (a system of government based upon the fear that central authority becomes bad authority--democracy, organized distrust, 'protest made easy,' a babble of discordant voices, a colossal getting in one's own way--democracy, now endangered by the apostles of hope who would attack it for its 'inefficiency,' whereas inefficiency is the one thing it has in its favor)" (114). Impractical art, and its purveyor the impractical aesthete, cannot exist within a fascistic ideal: could we even envision a "bohemian Berlin" of the late 1930's? In aligning aesthetics and democracy, Burke established an "attitudinal" linkage.

In the few years following the publication of "Program" (1931), world events such as the depression, Hitler's ascension to power, and the world-wide threat of fascism in general helped many aesthetes of the 1920s transform into social and political activists of the 1930s--most often with a heavily socialistic or communistic agenda. Just as Burke was a bad aesthete, he was also a bad communist, or at least a bad Marxist: he could not accept the reification of "classes" into categories sufficiently stable to operate dialectically in any material sense. Rather, he saw "class" as a primarily linguistic creation, and dialectic itself was not a material operation so much as it was a linguistic one (see "Auscultation," in Extentions of the Burkeian System). By the 1940s and 1950s, Burke was theorizing increasingly neither in terms of literature and aesthetics nor propaganda per se but rather in terms of symbolic action, especially in relation to the functionings of dialectic and rhetoric.

Burke's understanding of symbolic action is "founded" upon his understanding of the dialectical structure of language itself; this poisiont is laid-out perhaps most clearly in the opening sections of A Grammar of Motives (1945), especially the section on "Paradox of Substance." While Burke's theory of dialectics can be examined and extended in many directions (see the report of the 1993 KBS seminar "Burke as Dialectician," in the Burke Society Newsletter), what is most pertinent for our purposes, of course, is the relationship between dialectic and democracy. In a short appendix of The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) entitled "On Dialectic" (evidently originally a letter to the editor of The American Teacher responding to Kilpatrick's November 1939 article, "On Education and Indoctrination") Burke makes clear the relationship between dialectic and democracy:

To approach those [deeper issues], I should begin by adding one more term to his [Kirkpatrick's] 'education-ethics-intelligence-personality-freedom-deomocracy' equation (as against the 'propaganda-indoctrination-authoritariansim' equation). This added term would be 'dialectics.' In conformity with Mead, as I understand him, I take democracy to be a device for institutionalizing the the dialectical process, by setting up a political structure that gives full opportunity for the use of competition to a cooperative end. All full scope to the dialectic process, and you establish a scene in which the protagonist of a thesis has maximum opportunity to modify his thesis, and so mature it, in the light of the antagonist's rejoinders (444. Emphasis added).
For Burke, of course, the dialectic is not ultimately resolutional: a static, stable, peaceful, silent end is never attained, even in theory. Rather, the dialectic, even while producing human "knowledge" (as achieved "dramatistically" through the enacted dialectical process described above), never ceases, and "knowledge" is never totalized. By extension, democracy is never "finished;" change (reversal and transformation) is not only systemic, but also undetermined and undeterminant. This orientation may, in fact, have become a feature of acculturation in western democracies. In other words, Burke's understanding of dialectic as an open-ended process by which we adapt to (encompass and understand) certain circumstances, perhaps coming to transform those circumstances, is, at least incipiently, also a theory of democracy.

To summarize: If division (that is, if dialectic), then rhetoric (that is, efforts to overcome division through identification). Thus a parliamentary wrangle, a babble of discordant voices, and thus an incipient democracy. But what is the role of the critic?

From Burke's orientation, of course, to be conscious is, al some level, to be a critic; after all, "all living things are critics" (Permanence and Change, 5). And certainly all language users are, necessarily, critics; the very word "critic" derives from the Greek term meaning "to discern" (OED), and the act of discernment, implicitly, means the delineation of difference: to discern that something is "A" is to simultaneously delineate that it is not "B." Thus, at least etymologically, criticism is bound-up part and parcel in a broader system of differentiation, of language, and hence of dialectics. But the role of criticism in democracy seems more acute.

Burke's writings illustrate at least two functions of the critic in democratic society: 1) to "reveal" the propagandistic "magic" of demagogues and other political voices (this function is, of course, most directly illustrated in Burke's own criticism, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'"); and 2) since no criticism is neutral, to "wheedle and cajole" the audience toward the critic's own perspective (this process may be illustrated in Burke's 1935 speech to the American Writers' Congress, which may be read on one level as a criticism of proletarian literature). In the end, criticism functions democratically toward the attainment of "maximum self-consciousness," toward the making of better, more fully aware choices. In the political arena, these choices are manifested in the various forms of external identifications an individual may forge with particular issues, candidates, parties, etc. Many aspects of identification occur unconsciously, but it would seem to me that in a fully functioning democracy in which critics both de-mystify the persuasions of others and urge their own convictions, political identifications may move toward more conscious levels of choice, toward the ideal of maximum self consciousness.

One way of explicating further the nature of a "Burkean democracy" is by way of contrast. Burke's dialectical democracy is an open-ended, on-going, cooperatively competitive parliamentary wrangle, occasionally domesticated into a parlor conversation. Conversely, in Russia the intellectual history of "dialectic" is thoroughly eclipsed by the still-lingering shadow of Marxist-Leninist orientations to dialectic, which viewed dialectic as a historically determined force culminating in, not a "democratic" oscillatation among competitive forces, among differences, but rather a resolution of difference in the stasis of ultimate synthesis. The resolutional slant of Marxist-Leninist dialectics attains closure: "history," in this sense, attains an "end." The perpetuation of dialectical vying in democracy keeps the system unfinished; democracy never attains "closure." From this angle, the question of democratization of former Soviet states poses unique challenges.

To focus on the Russian Federation, the problem may be at least two-fold: 1) intellectually, the implicit democractic theory of "dialectic" is alien to the Russian cultural understanding of the concept, at least through the Soviet period; and 2) psychologically, there may be a desire for the dream of closure, the idyllic peace of political stasis, promised under the "perfectionist" dialectics of Marxism-Leninism. In Burkean terms, Marxist-Leninism fueled the appetite, but was unable to satisfy it; the appetite remains unsated during the process of democratizatin. And given that "democracy" spun from a non-resolutional dialectic cannot provide closure, it seems highly problematic that "democracy," at least in forms recognizable in the west, can ever satisfy that appetite (conversely, the "stability" attendant to the "strong-arm" of an authoritarian ruler might). Strictly from the perspective of propaganda, it would seem expedient for Russian democrats to redefine and "transvalue" traditional Russian perspectives on "dialectic" and harmonious, utopian peaceful social stability.

Return to Seminar Home Page