Democracy's Hour

Article excerpt

'PEOPLE, your government has returned to you."

These words, spoken by playwright-president Vaclav Havel to his fellow citizens two months after the November 1989 "velvet revolution" in Prague, were taken to heart not only by Czechs, but by people across the globe waking to the idea that totalitarianism need not be a permanent condition for people and nations.

In 1991, the idea of democracy is on the march. Marxism has been discredited by one of the most basic litmus tests around - practical experience. President Bush this week called on Fidel Castro, one of the few remaining committed Marxists, to open up Cuba's frozen political system. On Tuesday, Ethiopia's President Mengistu - a Marxist whose rule has led to mass starvation in East Africa - fled his country.

As today's Monitor series on political "Global Frontiers" notes, efforts in El Salvador to include labor unionists in the political process, and a freer press in Algeria, are examples of a larger, worldwide impulse for greater democratic freedoms. The fact that the Soviet Union sided with the West in the coalition against Saddam Hussein's aggression made a "new world order" at least temporarily possible.

Yet it is far too early to announce, as some would, the "triumph of democracy" in today's world. The failure of Marxism hardly means the automatic ascendancy of an idea as complex and as grounded in Western values and culture as democracy. Democracy has long been described as fragile, as an "experiment." Abraham Lincoln noted that democracy is always "one generation away from extinction echoing the Founding Fathers' Puritan-rooted concern about the corruptibility of human nature, and also implying that s elf-government in this world is not simply a "state of nature" that can be accepted unconsciously, but is something that must be learned and worked at. Democracy is not a mechanism; it must have a soul.

Tides of feeling must be examined. Optimism is not an accurate barometer. In the early 1950s there was great hope in some internationalist quarters for a new world brotherhood. …