The Least Worst Form of Government

Brian Roper, The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation

Pluto Press, 328pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780745331898

reviewed by Stuart Walton

A comprehensive critique of democracy would hardly lack for ammunition. As a political form democracy is limited by the overall level of social and intellectual advancement of the people who constitute its motivating principle. Electorally, its insistence on regular ballots, subject as they are to the vicissitudes of public opinion, produces an endless oscillation of political direction, with the result that the aims and achievements of one particular government may be promptly partially undone by the next. The electoral process tends to generate its own forms of corruption, as candidates manoeuvre to win the support of key financial and organisational constituencies to secure their own election. Its central form of organisation is the political party, whose interests tend to override those of the individuals on whose behalf they claim to speak, resulting in the malignant growth of unresponsive institutional power-structures. And while it claims to be a system in which 'the people' (demos) rule, it is actually driven by majoritarianism, the wishes of the majority of those who vote overriding the interests of the remainder.

For all these reasons and more, it is, as Churchill famously said, quoting some unknown antecedent, ‘the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Such is its seductive appeal that even state systems most obviously hostile to any working definition of democracy have felt the need to invoke its name in their official titles, as though to forestall any grassroots demand for it: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the People's Democratic Republics of Algeria and Korea, the German Democratic Republic of blessed Stalinist memory.

Brian Roper's overarching historical synthesis of the evolution of democracy as a political concept traces its emergence in Athens with the political reforms of Cleisthenes in the late sixth century BC, through its decline during the Roman republic and empire, to its re-emergence in the constitutional upheavals in the western world during the English, American and French Revolutions, the liberal revolutions of 1848-9, and the extension of the franchise and mass electoral participation since the early years of the last century. Supplementing this tale of the refinement of representative parliamentary democracy is the alternative tradition that flows from classical Athens in the form of the radical participatory alternative that achieved its tantalisingly brief manifestations during the two months of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the revolutionary process that unfolded in Russia from 1905, through the two revolutions of 1917, and its consequent disintegration amid internal dissension, civil war, foreign intervention, and the crippling economic blockade by means of which the imperial powers brought the Soviet state to its knees and facilitated decades of Stalinist decrepitude.

Suggestive tributary currents stream at intervals throughout this history. The elaboration of democratic engagement in Periclean Athens, which provided among other things for payment of elected officials, so that their roles were not confined to those who had the leisure and resources to stand for office, effectively ensured that there was no split between the citizen body and a professionalised governing class, entrenching a genuine equality that would play no part in the political theories of a Machiavelli (whose lifespan is extended here by a typo to a healthy 98 years) or a Hobbes. Political classes in the stratified institutional sense are rooted in the hierarchies of the Roman military, in a dynamically expansionist culture that won't scruple to wonder how its subject populations might wish to be governed.

The development of the bourgeois parliamentary form of democracy is inseparable in the classic Marxist analysis from the emergence to global hegemony of capitalism, an economic system in which the relations of production exercise ultimate power over the soul of society, so that the forms of its political arrangements take on at best a customary quaintness, and at worst the positive function of suppressing the popular will in order to safeguard the right of limitless accumulation of a surreptitiously powerful plutocracy. That said, there is nothing inevitable about capitalism's commitment to representative democratic government when its very life-support is under threat, as the Nazis were to make murderously clear.

The appeal that radical democratic movements would make under capitalist conditions became first and foremost an appeal for justice, the almighty restitution that the downtrodden and exploited must receive before any elevated argument over executive forms of government can take place. None of that prevented the appearance of visionary impulses within popular radicalism, especially during the laboured transition from the last of feudalism to capitalism – the Diggers' revolutionary ruralism looks like an anticipatory echo of Marx's 'primitive communism' of the Paleolithic hordes – but they mostly fell quickly to the 'enormous condescension of posterity' of which EP Thompson spoke.

Events in France in the 1780s and 1790s remain history's most vivid crystallisation of the ascent of the urban bourgeoisie to its role as a revolutionary class, a role it had usefully fulfilled and exhausted by the time of the liberal revolutions of 1848, the first in which organised socialists and communists played a part. The need for compression produces tormentingly brief summaries from Roper of Paris 1871 and the Bolshevik overthrow (though comprehensive guides to further reading at each chapter's conclusion provide adequate pointers to those avid for more). There are attempts to analyse the internal reasons for the rapid failures of each of these outstanding historical advances.

A briefly sketched set of desiderata for an outbreak of participatory democracy in the 21st century ranges from the blandly uncontentious (adequate childcare, shorter working hours) to the kinds of proposals guaranteed to cause palpitations everywhere from Buckingham Palace to the bus-stop. A people's armed militia will replace the police force on page 240 (though only 'if necessary' by page 275). Nobody would dare invade a revolutionary state, even one that had abolished its army, if it retained nuclear weapons, the firing of which would presumably also be in the charge of the people's militia, which comes as a blow to those of us who have waited all our lives for their abolition.

Curiously, the narrative stops, as much else did, with Stalin. An obvious missing chapter on China, which goes unmentioned in the entire book, and the convulsive events of the Cultural Revolution, state communism's only attempt to reintroduce active campaigning politics into a post-revolutionary scenario, disastrous though it ultimately was, may perhaps find its way into a subsequent edition. For the time being, we are invited in the preface to contemplate the Arab Spring, a disparate set of developments that has embraced the fall of Libya's demented Colonel Gaddafi and the deeply troubled and provisional settlement in Egypt, as well as the now largely moribund Occupy episode. The latter is commended, amid acknowledgement of the critique of its lack of focus, for at least having asked the right questions, as though merely petitioning capitalism to explain itself didn't already enact its own ideological subordination.

The historical sweep of Roper's study is impressive, and his skills as a cicerone of the existing literature unquestioned. Not many political historians achieve this level of condensation without doing too much damage to the all-important detail. It isn't entirely convincing to call the book an 'interpretation', as the subtitle has it, as opposed to, say, 'the Marxist version'. This isn't really a hermeneutic enterprise. If it were, it would have to interrogate many of its own axioms much more searchingly than it does (where it does at all). A passage of undialectical cultural phenomenology – 'we purchase audiovisual equipment ... we buy sport magazines ... we go to bars and cafés…,’ amid many another incriminating bourgeois frippery, as though socialist culture would have to abolish all such mindless idiocy – is cringingly close to what earlier generations knew as vulgar Marxism, while the notion that supporting football teams has replaced religious belief already elicited weary groans to anyone coming to Marxist consciousness in the 1970s. There seems more productive insight in the suggestion of Jacques Rancière in Hatred of Democracy (Verso, 2005) that ‘the increasingly immaterial forms of capitalist production concentrated in the universe of communication ... have formed a nomadic population of “producers” of a new type; … have constituted a collective intelligence, a collective power of thought, affects and movements of bodies that is liable to explode apart the barriers of the Empire.’ At least, that may have to do until the world's slum-dwellers, illegal migrants, sweatshop workers, refugee-camp inmates and political prisoners make sure of it.
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.