A History of Democracy

I’ve just finished reading Brian Roper’s new book, The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation (Pluto Press, 2012). I first met Brian back in 2002 at a conference on the British Marxist Historians somewhere in Lancashire. He told me back then that he was working on the book and I expressed an interest, given my background in the history of political thought. As the title would suggest, the book is necessarily ambitious in its scope, beginning with Athenian democracy and ending with social models of participatory democracy for the twenty-first century. 

In his new book, Bryan Roper presents a Marxist account of the history of democracy in order to ‘identify, imagine and clarify potential democratic alternatives to a world dominated by neoliberal capitalism and the United States (2).’ An historical materialist analysis of democracy, argues Roper, ‘will show the social, economic and political forces that have propelled the emergence and development of the major forms of democracy in the past, and make us better prepared to participate in the struggle for a more democratic world in the future (1-2).’ The point, therefore, is to understand the history of democracy in order to more effectively struggle for an alternative to the capitalist forms of representative democracy that dominate the present. This alternative is found in the tradition of socialist participatory democracy, which ‘incorporates elements of Athenian and representative democracy, while transcending them in order to facilitate … the direct participation of the majority of citizens in the governance of society (2).’The History of Democracy is quite an accomplishment. Roper skilfully synthesizes some of the more significant Marxist contributions to the history of state and class formation in the West including Athens, Rome, Europe in the Middle Ages; the ‘bourgeois’ revolutions in England, America and France; Europe between the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871; and the development of Marxist inspired forms of participatory socialist democracy in the twentieth century.Yet, the book tends to come across as less of a Marxist interpretation of the history of Western democracy and more of a synthesis of Marxist accounts of the development of the various modes of production and state formation characteristic of European and Western social, economic and political development. While the chapters on Athens and Rome do an admirable job of presenting the various institutional mechanisms of democracy and oligarchical republicanism, the chapter on the Middle Ages contains virtually no discussion of the potential for democratic politics at all, but is rather a wide ranging discussion on the development of feudalism and its degeneration into crisis, followed by the various paths of development – feudal absolutism in France and agrarian capitalism in England – that emerged out of this crisis. Plenty of space is devoted to the discussion of the various struggles against exploitation of the various ruling classes of England, France and America, but less attention is paid to the relationship between class and the various institutional forms of rule during the early modern period, and how those struggles challenged those institutions.

A more fundamental problem is that the book is too reliant on the secondary Marxist literature. This is perhaps to be expected, as the book seems to be intended as an overarching Marxist account of democratic development suitable for both upper year undergraduate courses as well as the discerning general reader. The downside is that the book does not add anything new to the Marxist literature; nor does it add anything new to the examination of the history of democracy. The book is light on the history of democratic political ideas, and where it does deal with them, it is largely reliant on secondary sources. It would have been strengthened by spending more time linking the development of democratic and anti-democratic thought to the aspects of class and state formation that constitute the bulk of the work.  For example, we can get a better sense of the undemocratic nature of the Roman republic by examining the way in which Cicero critiques and dismisses the democratic ideas being promulgated by unnamed proponents in his Republic, and articulates his own aristocratic republicanism against those democratic ideas. Such a discussion would have to examine the ways in which Cicero’s republicanism proposes an anti-democratic politics that seeks to confront the populist push for land reform – a prospect that would run up against the vested interests of those directly involved in the kind of plantation slavery that was increasingly significant for the social reproduction of what was still a predominately agrarian republic.

Similarly, there are some notable absences in the history of democratic struggle in the medieval and early modern periods.  The revolt of the Ciompi in fourteenth century Florence and the prospects for the democratization of ‘guild republicanism’ that it represented as recounted by Machiavelli in The Florentine Histories; the Anabaptists of Munster, who Kautsky attempted to rescue from the critical historical accounts – based as they were on the writings of their enemies – in his Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. While perhaps not as democratic as the political arrangements of ancient Athens (and in the case of the Anabaptists, often fraught with significant problems often associated with millenarianism), these serve as historical examples of the lower classes attempting to wrench political power from their respective ruling classes. The same holds for the chapters on the bourgeois revolutions of the early modern period:  these chapters would have benefited from more engagement with the writings of particular figures associated with the Levellers, such as John Lilburne, William Walwyn and Richard Overton; and a more substantive treatment of the Diggers, whose appearance is limited to a rather incongruous, two paragraph treatment during a longer discussion of the Levellers. In the American context, more attention could be paid to Brutus’ articulation of corporate representation and its implications for democracy, as well as Hamilton’s rejection of it in favour of the class based forms of representation characteristic of what would become ‘representative democracy’.  In the French case, greater attention could be paid to the democratic potential of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ and the democratic thought of Babeuf and Marat.

Having said all that, this is an invaluable book, both in its synthetic character as well as the source material it contains for further reading, and should find its way onto the reading lists of anyone interested in learning about the history of Western democracy.


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