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From the «Atlantic» Conception of Democracy to the «Continental» Conception

António Rebelo de Sousa


António Rebelo de Sousa
A good friend of mine, a former student at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa - today a well-known professor at the Universidade Católica de Lisboa – by the name of João Carlos Espada, recently published a book entitled Liberdade como Tradição (Freedom as Tradition), in which he attempts to compare the «Atlantic» conception of democracy with the «Continental» conception.
The author distinguishes between a flexible and gradualist conception, in which evolution takes place through trial and correction, and one that he considers to have supposedly scientific roots, tending towards dogmatisation and standardisation.
The first would have to do essentially with the English Revolution of 1688 (and therefore with the institutionalisation of parliamentary monarchy) and with the US Declaration of Independence in 1776; while the second would be more closely linked to the French Revolution of 1789 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Whilst there is some exaggeration in considering that the «rational» underlying the French Revolution had a decisive influence on the «rational» that underpinned the Bolshevik Revolution, although some interpretations of Rousseau’s thought and some theoretical developments of a republican tendency linked to certain encyclopaedists led to dogmatic constructions that justified, to a certain extent, the total hegemony of the collective interest over individual interest, I find João Carlos Espada’s theoretical contributions very interesting. 
His main contribution lies in the idea – shared by Bernsteinians like myself – that the essential part of democratic construction lies in movement (through trial and correction) and, therefore, in the reformist option and not so much in the goal of building a perfect terminal society.
It also lies in the consideration that there are limits to the reforming impetus, which have to do with not going beyond the basic principles that characterise what the author calls «gentlemanship», principles that are very well defined by Burke, as quoted by João Carlos Espada: «To be taught self-respect; to be taught to despise danger in the fulfilment of honour and duty; to possess the virtues of diligence, order, steadfastness and regularity, and to have cultivated a habitual attention to commutative justice: these are the circumstances of the men who form what I would call a natural aristocracy, without which a Nation cannot exist».
This is why I am one of those who, in many respects, agrees with the «Atlantic» conception of democracy.
Nothing more, nothing less...
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