Recent elections in Britain have been marked by extremely low voter turnout. Since such elections are supposed to be a cornerstone of modern society, we would be right to ask what this says about our democracy.
Socialists have long argued that under capitalism democracy is extremely limited. Unelected bankers and bosses make daily decisions affecting the lives of millions of people, while every few years we get to vote for politicians who probably won’t stick to their pledges.
Despite these failings, millions of people around the world yearn for even this limited democracy. In Brian Roper’s new book he points out that at the end of the 20th century less than half of the world’s countries were such liberal democracies. It is no surprise then that the Arab Revolutions have shown that millions of people are prepared to take to the streets to win some democratic control over their lives.
Our limited democracy is often portrayed as the pinnacle of achievement. Yet in reality throughout human history democracy has taken widely different forms. In ancient Greece, for instance, with the exception of women and slaves, citizens “faced no major obstacles to significant involvement in public affairs based on social position or wealth”, a situation that contrasts favourably to some modern democracies until the early 20th century. Indeed to be a citizen in ancient Athens was to take part in such democracy, even if 80 percent of the population was excluded.
Modern differences between state and society, people and government would not have been understood by those taking part in Athenian democracy. But this is because our electoral system is a result of a particular set of historical events, in particular the American and French Revolutions.
Modern democracy evolved out of the revolutionary struggles that ended feudalism and allowed capitalism to triumph. It is a reflection of the needs of the bourgeoisie, combined with the gains made by ordinary people for the extension of the democratic franchise. Frequently it has been working people who have been at the forefront of such demands, and key democratic reforms such as the 1867 Reform Act were responses to workers’ militancy.
Yet such limited bourgeois democracy can be contrasted to the democracy that emerges from class struggle. Often these are related. Revolutionary movements demand the right to take part in elections but then begin to create their own participatory democracy. The 1871 Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution are two classic examples of this.
While this book might have benefited from further exploration of how revolutionary socialist democracy might function in a more technologically advanced era, it is an excellent exploration of the history of democracy and the struggle to extend it.
The History of Democracy is published by Pluto, £20
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights