From LSHG Newsletter 49 (May 2013)
The History of Democracy:
A Marxist Interpretation
by Brian S. Roper
Pluto 2013 328pp Paperback
In his new book on the history of democracy Brian Roper cites two key motivating factors in writing it.
Firstly the rhetoric of democracy used in the Bush (and Blair) period to justify the invasion of Iraq and elsewhere. The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell parodied Bush speak, as in ‘freeman moxy’.
Secondly the more recent Arab Spring which saw revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia and Eqypt overthrow corrupt and undemocratic Governments in both countries.
He might have mentioned some other frameworks. Firstly that of Churchill who noted that democracy was the worst possible way of governing a country except for all the others.
Secondly a perspective suggested by Eric Hobsbawm which echoes the first point about the Iraq War. Namely that Western liberal democracy was not particularly something uppermost in the minds of many in other parts of the world who tended to think that things like water and bread had more importance.
Roper seeks to distinguish between various kinds of democracy. The classic Athenian model, the more recent liberal one and a socialist or marxist view of democracy. In doing so he notes that liberal democracy tends to try and assimilate earlier democratic practices into its own model even though they were distinct and time specific.
Roper’s point is that Athenian democracy remains the model for popular workers democracy from below whereas Roman democracy is the one favoured by those who see democracy, in more limited and controlled form handed down from above. The 1688 Revolution in England is an example suggested.
The book is clearly divided chronologically and in this sense is an excellent text for anyone seeking to understand a socialist perspective on democracy, historically rooted, and then read on further. There are suggestions for more in depth reading at the end of each chapter.
Roper proceeds from Athens, via the transition from feudalism to capitalism on to capitalist democracy itself and concludes with two examples of socialist democracy in practice — the Paris Commune and the first years of the Russian Revolution from 1917.
The majority of the text is a well written summary of a Marxist perspective on the particular period under discussion followed by a brief and usually incisive commentary on it.
Inevitably with such a vast amount of ground to cover readers will feel that more could have been written on this or that point.
For example the experience of the Chartist movement, hardly mentioned in the book, is of importance because the Chartists were the first workers’ movement grappling with the world’s first liberal Parliamentary democracy, albeit a far from complete one, even after the1832 Reform Act. The Six Points of the People’s Charter are plebeian democratic demands but after the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions, the Chartists moved left. The 1851 Manifesto, the Charter and Something More, contained demands not just for political democracy but for economic and social democracy as well.
I broadly agree with the Marxist perspectives of Roper that underwrite the book but it should provoke discussion about currents on the left that have had different views. In that sense Roper’s occasional use of the word ‘only’ to suggest that there was no alternative to the course that was followed is overly didactic.
To conclude with but one example. Edward Thompson argued, particularly in his collection Writing By Candlelight, that given the experience of Stalinism, civil liberties and hard won democratic freedoms were not something to be dismissed as simply bourgeois but rather important safeguards for the citizen that would need to be the cornerstone of a socialist democracy not replaced by it.
Discussions on democracy and what it means to the left are timely and Roper’s book is a useful guide to the context in which they can take place.