Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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OPPOSITION. The word opposition, in politics, has two distinct meanings. Properly, it is the resistance which dissenting parties offer to the acts of the government, because their interests or opinions are at variance with such acts. It is also used to designate the parties from which this resistance proceeds. These parties may vary ad infinitum in point of numbers, intelligence and power; but they always constitute the opposition. An individual citizen also may resist the government, but even if he were an insurgent satrap he would be only an opponent, not the opposition.


—Opposition may exist elsewhere than in the political field. Religious opinions and even religions may engage in a struggle with each other. The dissenting parties resist and sometimes overthrow the established authority. The struggles of Christianity against Polytheism, of Protestantism against Catholicism, and of the philosophic spirit against the principle of authority, are so many examples of opposition awakened in the moral world, and which have reacted most powerfully upon politics. True, religious and philosophical oppositions differ from those purely political by the very nature of the metaphysical problems from which they spring: the destiny of man, the relations between God and the world, the government of things here below by providence. The religious struggle is carried on ardently, passionately, but with little noise; the new belief employs no arms except those of persuasion. Ideas are elaborated in the seclusion of the study, and are propagated slowly, progressively, in men's consciences. Political opposition has quite another field. It inflames the crowd in the cause of interests less sacred, doubtless, but not unimportant, and produces more immediate agitation. It is the only form for which custom has reserved the name of opposition, and the only one with which we have to do here.


—The existence of a party of opposition always supposes a certain degree of liberty and of the right of investigation. A despotic government admits of no opposition, and no argument. It can only be resisted by force, and it has no alternative but to conquer or to perish, like the Roman emperors whom triumphant revolt dragged down the steps of the Aventine Hill leading to the Tiber.


—Where there exists an infallible authority, or what pretends to be such, opposition has no raison d'être and is not tolerated. Just as religions allow no contradiction of their dogmas, theocracies and governments by divine right, which attribute to themselves a part of their infallibility, exclude all opposition. It is therefore only in free governments, in which man's activity has free play, in which his faculties are developed without hindrance, and in which his reason has sovereign command, that opposition can find a place, not by toleration, but as a right. Opposition is born of a diversity of opinions, which can be reduced to unity by no art or science, however great the effort. It answers to the divergence of interests, the rivalry and struggles of which are at the bottom of all questions, and form the warp and woof of history. Parties are formed, struggle, and contend with one another for influence and the control of the government. Doubtless a great many petty rivalries, a great many questions of persons and egotistical ambitions, enter into their disputes. But we must contemplate these struggles from a higher plane and as a whole; great principles are engaged in them and govern them. The eternal problem of human affairs is forever reappearing in them under one of its myriad forms; in the fierce battles which he wages, it is to ideas that man devotes himself; and his honor is to die for them. Let us take as an example the glorious, little, agitated and turbulent republics of Greece. A question of principle, of sovereignty, divided them, such as: "Shall the aristocracy or the democracy rule? Sparta or Athens?" And the struggle was carried on not only in states and cities; in every city the two parties were arrayed against each other, the one in power, the other constituting the opposition. What vicissitudes in the life of these parties so changeable, so quickly organized and so quickly dissolved; one day in possession of favor and success, of popularity and of the votes of the multitude, the next forsaken, annihilated; in turn and almost without interval, conquerors and conquered!


—In modern society the right of discussion, and consequently of opposition, is the very soul of representative government. This right applies not only to the making of the laws and the voting of taxes, in which the people take part through their representatives, but to all the parts of legislation, and to all public services. Opposition may even go beyond this, and attack the government and its principle. The ideal of representative government does not allow this sort of radical opposition. It is necessary that there should be, beyond all reach of discussion, a stable, fixed point, and a principle which can not be contested. In the moral world, as in the physical, motion supposes an immovable point. The constitution, whose object is the conservation of the state as a political body, may indeed, be criticised, but it can not allow itself to be denied or its principle to be overthrown. All opposition, therefore, is outside the law from the moment that it denies the political pact and seeks not the control of the government but its destruction. Hence, even in the very countries in which political commotions are most frequent, and in which power is oftenest shaken by revolution, we see that each government tries to put its principle at least beyond the reach of the storm, and puts the constitution under the safeguard of an oath. The reason is, that, wherever the constitution is called in question, normal political life has ceased to exist, and revolution has taken its place.


—England is a country which affords the world the grand spectacle of a government whose principle is accepted by all. This principle is the fixed, immovable point to which we referred above, the light-house whose foundation is beaten by the billows, but whose summit towers serenely above the storm. In such a country the opposition bears only on the direction of public affairs, on questions of influence and of persons. We need not inquire by what vicissitudes England had to pass to reach this condition of calm and of union.


—What combination of circumstances is necessary, in order that hostile parties may be come extinguished or abdicate? How long may their opposition last? It is plain that in the infinite variety of human affairs, no fixed rules can be laid down here.


—The old Greek theogony represents discord and friendship in the midst of the elements, co-operating in the work of the gods. The one divides the forces of nature, the other restores them to unity, and the two together produce the general harmony of the universe. Opposition, like discord, doubtless has its part to play in the harmony of the life of nations. "Every force in nature is despotic, as is all will in man. A single plant would soon cover the earth, by reproduction, if the other plants allowed it free course." (Rivarol) Opposition is an obstacle in the way of invading forces, and keeps them within their just limits. It obliges power to keep an attentive watch over its own acts, and, if we may take a witticism for an axiom, we would be obliged to admit even that it is the safeguard of power; since we can lean only upon that which offers resistance.


—In a regular representative government the opposition is always the minority. As soon as it becomes the more numerous and powerful, it assumes control of affairs, and finds the other party arrayed against it as the opposition. The opposition may be weak, or it may be strong; it may be homogeneous, or be composed of discordant and contradictory elements, united only for the needs of the struggle; in this case it constitutes a coalition. Oppositions usually have a marvelous aptitude for self-discipline; every opposition has a tendency to provide itself with leaders and to become systematic: that is, not to confine itself to criticism of isolated acts of the government, but to condemn them and combat them en masse.


—In divided countries in which the governing power is not universally accepted, it is rarely the opposition which precipitates revolutions, it prepares the way for them. Most frequently at the last moment it recoils before its own work. It confines itself to paving the road, to preparing the arena into which political parties are about to enter, and in which the forces of insurrection or of the government are to decide the fate of the state. We are not, however, without examples of oppositions which, victorious and sustained by the people, have succeeded in forcing a constitution upon the government, and in accomplishing a peaceful revolution.


—The opposition has more than one advantage over the government party. In the first place, the part it has to play is less difficult: criticism is easy, while art is difficult. The opposition which criticises is not, like the government party, responsible for its acts; its work is collective, and therefore impersonal. Moreover, as the public think that it is more honorable to attack power than to flatter it, and do not see that under many circumstances it requires more courage to defend it than to combat it, the opposition easily obtains the favor of popularity. This popularity sometimes deludes the minds of even well intentioned men, who allow themselves to believe that the opposition is necessarily in advance of the government, that it is a means and a condition of progress. This is sometimes the case, but not always. The opposition may be more enlightened and liberal than the party in power; but it may be less so. Reason and truth are no more the exclusive attributes of the governed than of the governing. Hence it can not be said absolutely that the opposition holds in its hands the future of civilization and the destinies of the world. Nevertheless, experience shows that governments, save in exceptional cases which are always rare, in which the head of the state is a man of genius, incline more frequently to immobility than to progress, and generally oppose the force of inertia to the most necessary reforms. The impulse must then come from without, and the motive power is the opposition.


—The work of oppositions thus partakes both of good and evil. But they number in their history pages of incomparable brilliancy. Posterity should not forget that in the ranks of the opposition there have been found united, courage and virtue; that they have called forth the noblest bursts of patriotism and the sublimest accents of eloquence; that great characters have been formed in them; that generous hearts have fought with them, and with them devoted themselves to humanity. What matters it after this that all the causes favored by oppositions have not triumphed? Doubtless, by the side of oppositions inspired by great principles, we find others petty, mean and retrogressive. Some have marked their passage by fertile ideas; others have by degrees become weakened and finally dropped into silence and forgetfulness. In the work of man error is ephemeral. Truth survives. We must credit opposition, the daughter of free investigation, with its truths, and pardon its errors. (Compare PARTIES, POLITICAL.)


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