bad dispensations

The idea that we must choose between two intolerant illiberalisms, one on the Right and one on the Left, is, it seems to me, increasingly common today. It was also quite common in the 1930s. For instance, in 1937 the British House of Commons was debating whether or how to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and a number of M.P.s insisted that it was necessary to choose between the Fascists and the Communists. But one Member of the House replied,

I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations…. It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself; and, having a strong feeling in regard to the preservation of individual rights as against Governments, and as I do not find in either of these two Spanish factions which are at war any satisfactory guarantee that the ideas which I personally care about, and to which I have been brought up in this House to attach some importance, would be preserved, I am not able to throw myself in this headlong fashion into the risk of having to fire cannon immediately on the one side or the other of this trouble…. I cannot feel any enthusiasm for these rival creeds. 

The Member who so refused to make that choice was Winston Churchill. When many thought that liberalism and democracy were unsustainable, were not long for this world, he stood up for liberalism and democracy anyway. That was the wise course then, and it’s the wise course today.