‘The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation

Pluto Press, London, 2013. 328pp., £18.99 pb
ISBN 9780745331898

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New …


When George W Bush opened up the Iraqi front during his twenty-first century Middle-Eastern crusade it was to the ideal of democracy that he turned. Invading Iraq, he argued, would help spread the ‘global democratic revolution’ and – in fairness to him – there can be no denying US and British bombs have a certain egalitarian aspect in their ability to vaporise men, women and children alike. In contrast to the verbally challenged 43rd President of the US, the two greatest minds of antiquity would never have countenanced the notion of ‘democracy’ to justify their ethical ends. For Plato and Aristotle, democracy was little more than a dirty word, implying the rule of the uncultured, unlettered multitude; for this, they argued, it would never be far from its counterpart – anarchy.

I mention this by way of making a more general point. Not only have people related to the idea of ‘democracy’ in all manner of fashions, but the idea itself has remained contested throughout its history, and has been embodied in a series of often quite distinct social forms. That is why Brian S Roper’s The History of Democracy is such a welcome offering; for the author attempts to trace methodically the historical development of different forms of democracy throughout history, to locate each in the socio-historical conditions which provide for its possibility; and then to distil from these multifarious templates the notion of what a true and fully comprehensive democracy might look like. Roper’s study takes in Ancient Greece, the Republic and Empire of Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, global capitalism, and finally the Paris commune and the Russian Revolution.

Naturally Roper begins with Ancient Greece. He describes Solon and the sixth century legislation which involved ‘shaking off the burdens’, and allowed the peasantry to assume greater independence from the class of landowners by way of eliminating debt bondage. But though this does form an important background to the possibility of the creation of a class of independent ‘citizen-peasants’, Roper suggests that Solon’s reforms were as much about stabilising the system as transforming it. The more significant point of transition comes in 508 BC when a scion of the ruling elite – Isagoras – is appointed to high-office, and then recruits a Spartan military force in an attempt to overturn the constitution (and Solon’s reforms) and reinstate the absolute power of the aristocracy. In response there is a spontaneous and massive eruption on the part of the populous, which sweeps Isagoras and his section from power, and reinstalls Cleisthenes, the figure who will go on to inaugurate the epoch of radical democracy. Roper, then, is emphatic , ‘[e]ssentially, democracy arose in Athens out of the fires of a revolutionary uprising by peasants, artisans and free labourers.’ (22) For Roper, Greek democracy was always more than just a formal system of social organisation in which votes are issued. It was part and parcel of a living process whereby a citizen majority was able to exert and manifest its power against an Aristocratic elite. Greek democracy was forged as a weapon in the class struggle and this is key to its profoundly egalitarian character. Yes, it suffered from distortions. It was fundamentally limited, excluding women, slaves and non-citizens. In addition ‘[w]ealthy landowners were likely to exert disproportionate political influence because they were more likely to be highly educated and articulate, could employ others to speak on their behalf, and had more time … to participate in the Assembly’ (32).

Nevertheless Roper shows, by drawing on de Ste. Croix’s seminal study among others, how Athenian democracy provided the lower orders with a degree of self-determination which would not again be enjoyed until the latter part of the nineteenth century. And this was because in Athens, ‘the principle of government was the principle of a form of life: direct participation.’ (28) For there was a complex of institutional forms which mediated and meshed the citizenry into a coherent network better able to actualise its political interests. Roper’s discussion of this is detailed and comprehensive, ranging from the individual ‘deme’ – to which a given citizen would belong (the deme being the basic geographical unit of the Athenian demographic) – to the executive body of the state, the ‘boule’, whose members were elected by the citizens of each deme and ‘held office for one year, and could not hold office more than twice during their lifetime’. (24) At the same time, citizens were conscripted to act as judge and jurors in popular law courts; and pay for jury service was mandated so that even the poorest could participate, while many of these trials were political in character, providing a judicial review ‘of the decrees of the Assembly, activities of the Boule, and the performance of magistrates’ (26).

So Roper is able to depict a vibrant political organism in which the citizenry was constantly in a state of debate and agitation, always filtering these impulses through the democratic hierarchy more broadly, and maintaining a significant degree of control over leaders whose powers were dramatically curtailed, and had less opportunity to ossify into a separate caste which could assert its own interests over and against the body politic. But when Roper moves on to the formation of modern bourgeois democracies the contrast proves a vivid and palpable one. In the American Revolution, for example, the leaders who directed the revolution laboured to exclude not only ‘women, Amerindians and slaves … from their vision of democracy’ but also ‘white men without property’. (128) However, as Roper points out, though they distrusted immensely ‘the mob’, the leaders were compelled to go some way in opening up the revolution, for they needed to mobilise small property owners and even the property-less members of the white population who were mostly gun-toting, and could provide the firepower to help push through independence. And so, Roper notes, the leadership was compelled to walk a tight-rope, to affect a balancing act ‘by appealing to universal notions of liberty and democracy, on the one hand, while simultaneously defending the sanctity of property and the rule of a rich capitalist minority, on the other.’ (129)

Roper argues most persuasively that the same balance was mediated by the political structures of the federal state which, through the Constitution, ‘created a system of checks and balances in which power in the federal state was divided between the executive, legislature, and judiciary.’ (141) Roper contends that the separation of powers – along with the counterbalance between federation and state more broadly – is not to be comprehended in terms of the traditional logic – i.e., that such fragmentations of sovereignty would act as a bulwark against the formation of a centralised top-down tyranny. Rather, Roper suggests, such a social formation arose out of the experience of the revolutionary leadership – its experience of trying to harness the momentum of the masses without being overwhelmed by it; such divisions in the political forms helped ensure that mass power could not crystallise into a ‘coherent single interest’. (Foner cited 145) Whereas in ancient Athens ‘the process of government was based on free and unrestricted discourse, guaranteed by isegoria, an equal right to speak in the sovereign assembly’ (144), the American democracy succeeded in abstracting the people from their ‘representatives’: ‘it acts to distance the people from direct involvement in politics and government.’ (146) Again, Roper’s analysis is formed from the purview of class conflict; in particular, Shay’s rebellion which induced on the part of the wealthier classes an awareness of the threat posed by any development of a more direct and ‘excessive democracy’.

In the English and French Revolutions Roper locates a similar tension. In an excellent discussion of the New Model Army, Roper shows how Cromwell’s forces, though quite substantially outnumbered, were able to best the royalists, partly because the army itself had been galvanized by the struggle of the broader democratic movement. Roper cites Brian Manning who writes, ‘the army which became the instrument of victory was different from previous armies; it was one in which promotion was determined increasingly by professional merit rather than social rank’ (104). Within the army there emerged a series of coherent democratic structures – regiments which allowed for the election of ‘agitators’ and these issued initiatives and reports which gave expression to the grievances of the rank and file, and also articulated demands to ameliorate them. Increasingly influenced by the leftism of the Levellers and the radical egalitarianism of the Diggers, ‘the rank and file and their elected agitators … increasingly were acting independently of their officers’ (107). When the arrest of the King took place, although Cromwell was in favour of it, the initiative in fact came from below.

Cromwell’s achievement lay in the fact that he was able to transmute the democratic movement into a military form and thus revolutionise its practise, while simultaneously curtailing the crest of radicalism which had formed atop of the revolutionary wave. As the Putney Debates came to a close, future agitation was made illegal (given how germane this is to his argument more generally, it is surprising that Roper doesn’t spend more time here). But even during the debates themselves, Cromwell’s position (that of the ‘Grandees’) was notable for its conservatism and suspicion of the elements below (Both Cromwell and Ireton were against universal male franchise).

Roper describes the French Revolution as in thrall to a similar dynamic. Again the earliest phase of the revolutionary process supposed a certain timorous sense of compromise; but, just like in the English case, the belligerent actions of the King alongside the forces underneath, drove the process into a more radical phase – at which point the pendulum swings back, and the forces of property and conservatism reassert themselves once again. The revolution, for Roper, is always a contested field – and in the French case it was the popular movement that fortified the Jacobins in and through ‘direct forms of democracy [which] reached their highest point in the revolution. For example, in Paris, where the city was divided into 48 sections, each with its own assembly.’ (175) The same movement was eventually forced into abeyance and the conservatives were able to impose a less radical constitution; thus was established a more narrowly political form, ‘a form of indirect representative democracy’ (176)

In a sense Roper has now set the basis for a higher synthesis, and I would say that the raison d’être of the book consists in exactly this: Roper aims to show how the democracy of antiquity had a content which mediated the citizen directly with the political decision making process, while forms of bourgeois representative democracy abstracted him from it. At the same time, representative democracy had built into it the demand for a formal equality (though not always actualised) which the Greek paradigm lacked. A more concrete mode of democracy would, therefore, tend to encompass and ‘sublate’ both earlier moments. Roper sees the first early template of this mediation in the Paris Commune, and then in a more realised form in and through the Russian Soviets. At the time of the Bolshevik insurrection, the party was only able to carry it through because of its mandate in The All-Russian Second Congress of Soviets, a body which was composed of a vast array of delegates elected from factories and workplaces which had formed workers councils in over 500 cities and towns by the middle of that year. The moment of direct democracy was crystallised in a series of radical legal decrees which were instituted by the worker’s government once the Bolsheviks were swept to power: ‘Women were enfranchised, equal pay legislated for, universal paid maternity leave introduced, the legal distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was eliminated, abortion was legalised … proscriptions against homosexuality were removed from the legal code.’ (269) Equality in legal form then – but an equality underpinned by the most substantive democratic content.

To see Roper’s fine book as a work of synthesis is to see in it its practical value. The History of Democracy is a work of activism in the best Marxist sense; it reconstructs the essence of democracy as a living process which is part and parcel of the class struggle. Yes, argues Roper, its most concrete manifestation (Russia 1917) might well have been defeated by the economic conditions which pertained in the country more broadly, and the 13 Western nations whose armies strangled it at birth; but nevertheless the logic of historical development conclusively demonstrates that the possibility for a more concrete mode of democracy grounded in the self-activity of the broader population is not utopic – it is actual. And it is something we must fight for!

The book does have a few limitations, however. While Roper’s analysis of representative democracy is very much premised on the fact that its abstract character is a result of the success of reactionary elements against revolutionary ones in the political arena in the process of its formation, Roper neglects the ontological essence of capitalism itself so to say: specifically the conflict between use and exchange at the metabolic level. Exchange value dissolves labour into its abstract form, as a congealed quantity of labour time; it is no longer about the richness of the specific labour type (e.g., carpentry or shoe-making). Likewise, it seems to me that a vote in a bourgeois democracy achieves something similar: your vote reduces you to the status of a generic individual, your particularity in terms of class and occupation, salary and means – all of this is dissolved therein. Or to say the same thing, the character of democracy which arises out of a society which is premised on generalised commodity exchange is stamped, of necessity, by its fundamental economic form.

In addition, Roper is ambivalent when it comes to describing the origins of capitalism itself. At points he seems to favour, mistakenly in my view, the political Marxist interpretation that capitalism first developed in England. Elsewhere he cites both England and the Netherlands as its originating source. But he fails to reference Italy – which is where Marx himself first saw capitalist social relations emerging. And this is perhaps why: although Roper refers to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 in England, he neglects to mention the far more radical revolt of the Ciompi in Florence only three years before, a revolt enacted by free labour and members of minor guilds, and one which brought to power, albeit fleetingly, a radically democratic government, at least by the standards of the day. Finally, in an otherwise comprehensive overview, the primitive forms of democracy which emerged sporadically in the Viking age go regrettably overlooked.

Nevertheless these shortcomings do not touch the overall profundity of Roper’s thesis or the persuasive skill with which he delivers it. The criticisms made could easily be remedied in a second edition, an edition which, this reviewer at least, very much hopes to see. 

22 September 2014

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